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How redistricting works in Utah - and how you can get involved

  • Updated
  • 8 min to read

Redistricting takes place once every ten years following the U.S. Census, and the new boundaries re-define voting districts for congressional candidates, state legislative representatives, county commissioners and school boards.

These boundaries are critical for political representation and can unite or divide different groups of people.

This fall, new districts will be drawn for all these levels of government to reflect population and demographic changes identified through the census; there are various ways for the public to participate in the process.

How boundaries are created

Creating district boundaries is complex and the resulting maps must adhere to various parameters. Some are hard and fast rules; others are guidelines and leave room for interpretation.

One of the most straightforward parameters is the requirement that all districts have an equal population, within a standard deviation determined for each type of district. Districts must also be geographically contiguous and “reasonably” compact—that is, they shouldn’t be strange, contrived shapes.

While the population rule sounds clear-cut, it can get complicated in real terms.

An area with a small but concentrated population, like Grand County, is not large enough to have its own representative at the state level, but grouping it with other communities that are contiguous to meet the population requirement means that the county may end up in a district with communities that have different concerns.

Another guideline for state and local redistricting efforts is to attempt to preserve “communities of interest,” which are defined as groups of people in a contiguous geographic area that share common policy interests—whether cultural, religious, social, economic, or others.

Communities of interest don’t necessarily coincide with the boundaries of a political subdivision. They could be a neighborhood within a city or county, or even cross municipal boundaries. A relationship with a political party, incumbent, or candidate can not be used as the basis for a community of interest. Keeping these communities together can help ensure that the concerns of each community carry weight within its district.

In addition, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits plans that intentionally or inadvertently discriminate on the basis of race. District maps also should not be partisan or favor a particular candidate.

How does this work in Grand County?

Grand County has partnered with the consulting company MGGG Redistricting Lab to create an online portal where Grand County residents can submit comments or draw the boundary maps they’d like to see for five districts that will serve as both county commissioner and school board districts. (Two of the seven county commission seats are voted at-large.)

The website is https://portal.utah-mapping.org. The portal tool provides population and demographic data to help users balance their proposed districts.

Residents can also use the portal to define areas of “communities of interest” within the county to help the commission eventually choose boundaries.

On Aug. 2, the Grand County League of Women Voters and local community radio station KZMU hosted a panel discussion on the redistricting process. County Commissioner and Chair of the Grand County Democratic Party Kevin Walker, Chair of the Grand County Republican Party and former member of the Change in Form of Government Committee Cricket Green, and former Chair of the Change in Form of Government Committee and political independent Stephen Stocks discussed redistricting in the county, facilitated by Eve Tallman of the League of Women Voters. The discussion is still available for listening at www.kzmu.org.

The panel went over the criteria for fair and legal boundaries. Walker and Green noted that avoiding political bias in Grand County’s new districts is likely achievable, because people of varying political perspectives are spread throughout the county.

“Moab is very diverse, street to street,” said Green. “When we were on the [Change in Form of Government] committee we had all three parties fairly represented within a one block radius. I think Moab has a lot of people that aren’t extreme one way or another.”

However, it will be difficult to check for potential bias: voter precincts in Grand County are almost as large as voting districts, and so granular data on how neighborhoods voted isn’t available.

The panel noted local examples of commonalities that might tie together a community of interest in Grand County. Castle Valley, for example, is a clear community of interest—it would seem contrived to break it up into separate districts.

Other issues that might unite Grand County communities might include rural character, areas that use personal water wells, areas affected by traffic or noise, areas where people predominantly own their homes or where people predominantly rent, or areas with a high percentage of affordable housing. Walker pointed out that at the county level, a lot of the legislative body’s decisions have to do with planning and zoning, so those types of issues would make sense to use in identifying communities of interest. For example, a neighborhood with concerns about proposals for a bypass might want to identify as a community of interest.

Addressing the criteria that each district have an equal population, Green pointed out that some neighborhoods are poised for significant growth in the near future. For example, the affordable housing development Arroyo Crossing is slated to eventually add nearly 300 housing units within a 42-acre parcel.

“When more people move into planned development, it will change all the districts,” Green said, adding that she had been shocked to learn how unevenly populated Grand County’s current districts are. Grand County has not redrawn its districts since the 1990s, and growth and development have substantially changed the geographic distribution of the county’s population in that time.

The panelists all agreed that the more the public is involved in the process, the more nuanced and fair the districts will be, providing the best possible representation to Grand County residents. All the comments and suggested maps submitted by the public will be considered by the county commission. Any that are clearly unworkable will be discarded, and the remaining will be opened to public scrutiny, including by leaders of political parties. Any maps that are found objectionable by political leaders can be weeded out, and the commission can choose a map from the remaining submissions, or draw its own map based on community input. The final boundaries will be set by the end of the year.

“I think the most important part of this entire process is to make it as transparent and open as possible,” said Stocks. “The goal is to include everybody as best we can.”

At the state level

For state-level voting districts, the final maps will be chosen by the state legislature. However, an independent commission is gathering public input and will draft recommended district maps.

The bipartisan, seven-member Utah Independent Redistricting Commission was established in 2018 through a ballot measure to serve as an independent advisory body and enhance public input and transparency in the redistricting process.

The Utah Independent Redistricting Commission is holding public meetings throughout the state in September and October to invite public input on the state-level process. Based on that input, the commission will create three each of recommended maps of congressional, state senate, state house, and state school board districts and submit them to the Utah State Legislature for consideration by Nov. 1.

“Once the commission submits its plans, the Legislative Redistricting Committee will have a public hearing dedicated to reviewing the commission’s maps and taking public comment,” according to the UIRC’s website. The state legislature will then select a final map for each type of district, either one of the commission’s recommendations or one the committee drafts.

“Utahns can participate first-hand in the redistricting process for the first time in the state’s history via these vital public meetings and through UIRC’s new interactive website,” said Austin Isbell, a public relations professional promoting the meetings, in an email to the Moab Sun News. “Participants can explore the 2020 census data, submit formal comments and ideas on the suggested draft maps, and even create their own maps.”

The website to submit comments or maps is uirc.utah.gov; the deadline for public feedback and map submissions is October 22. The site offers a mapping tool to outline and submit communities of interest, as well as a mapping tool to sketch boundaries for all statewide districts. Comments can also be emailed to uirccomments@utah.gov.

The UIRC will consider the same parameters mentioned above; it will also attempt to conserve the “cores” of existing districts. It will also try to minimize the division of municipalities and counties across multiple districts. Currently, for example, the Moab area is split between two state representative districts. Northwest Moab area is represented by Carl Albrecht in the Utah House of Representatives; Southeast Moab area and Spanish Valley are represented by Christine Watkins.

The UIRC will also attempt to draw boundaries that line up across different types of districts. For example, they will try to align boundaries of districts for the Utah House of Representatives, the Utah State Senate, the Utah State School Board, and the United States Congress. Small-group meetings of the UIRC are being broadcast on its YouTube channel, and members invite ongoing feedback from the public.

State legislative committee

The Utah State Legislative Redistricting Committee will consider maps recommended by the UIRC and may select one of them, or draw its own maps, by the end of the year, though the committee hopes to have final maps selected by Thanksgiving Day. Districts must certainly be determined by Jan. 1 of 2022, as candidates can begin collecting signatures to run for office on that date.

The State Legislative Redistricting Committee is using the same software as the UIRC to accept district map submissions and comments. The link to access the committee’s tool is https://maps-redistricting.utah.gov/redistricting. Users can make their own maps, and also comment on published maps submitted by others. The program includes tutorials; representatives of the software company have also given demonstrations of the mapping tool at the redistricting committee’s public meetings. A schedule of those meetings and links to attend or watch past meetings is at https://le.utah.gov/committee/committee.jsp?year=2021&com=SPELRD.

At a Sept. 2 meeting of the redistricting committee, Aaron Hrenak of the ESRI company that supports the mapping software gave an in-depth demonstration of the mapping tool. Completing a map will require some time and dedication to learning the extensive suite of tools.

The committee, like the UIRC, is holding public meetings throughout the state to solicit feedback from residents.

Tyson Bomsta, a senior at Utah State University studying economics and political science, addressed the committee in Logan on Sept. 9.

“I love maps, so last week, I had some free time and decided I’m going to take, like, five hours and draw a map,” he said, demonstrating how intricate the process of drawing a map can be. Committee members and members of the public were impressed with the thought and detail of Bomsta’s map.

Meeting participants discussed the importance of school districts, communities of interest, and the redistricting process.

The Legislative Redistricting Committee will hold a similar meeting in Moab on Oct. 6, at 6 p.m. at the Grand Convention Center.

In addition to the UIRC website, members of the public can comment at in-person public meetings, which will also be streamed online on the UIRC’s YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCi5KsuDI8VklRLqrXh2yDtg.

The UIRC held its first in-person public meeting on Sept. 3 in Monticello. Members of the commission gave an overview of the commission’s goals and process, and invited feedback from attendees, which included local elected officials from San Juan County and the cities of Blanding and Monticello.

Commission members pointed out that while they often try to use geographic boundaries like mountain ranges or rivers to bound districts, those borders sometimes don’t make sense on the ground.

In addition, they noted, Utah’s population has shifted significantly over the past ten years, with substantial growth in urban areas like St. George or the Wasatch Front. That means district lines will have to shift, and the commission wants to make sure they get feedback from Utahns about what areas function as whole communities.

“I know this is an issue that’s a concern down here in southeastern Utah, that you want to make sure that your communities aren’t split,” said UIRC member Rex Facer. “And we want to hear that, and to make sure that we’re hearing you correctly.”

Blanding City Councilmember Cheryl Bowers asked that San Juan County be grouped with other rural communities so that rural values will carry weight in the district.

“If you put us with larger communities, we feel like our voice will be gone completely,” she said, “and we already feel like we lack a voice in the state.”

Monticello City Councilmember Kim Henderson added a request that San Juan not share a district with Grand County.

“I do feel like Grand County and San Juan County are very different. In a lot of ways, I would say that we’re polar opposites. To me it doesn’t make sense to bunch us with somebody that we have very few similarities with,” Henderson said.

Commission members noted that San Juan County is in the southwest corner of the state, and has too small of a population not to share a district with other counties.

“I ask myself, what should I do about San Juan County?” said commission member Lyle Hillyard. “I can’t go east, I can’t go south; I’ve got to either go west, or I’ve got to go north.”

The UIRC thanked meeting participants for their comments and urged them to stay engaged and submit their ideas through the website and the mapping tool.

“Don’t let it frustrate you to where you give up,” said commission member William Thorne of the mapping tool. “It’s important we hear what you need and what you want.”