Redistricting in Ut(opia)

I have been watching the redistricting process with interest although I have not been able to be as vocal in the discussions as I might have wished. This late in the process we can see the forces at work and the concerns being raised. On top of that, I have been asked how I think the lines should be drawn (not what my map would look like so much as how I would go about drawing it). It time now to no longer be silent. Before the final vote on the maps is completed by the special legislative session I need to speak up – and so should everyone else who has not already been heard in this process.

I have been pleased with the process at times and disappointed with the results at other times. I am going to talk about what has happened in the redistricting process so far, good and bad, and also answer the question of what I think is the appropriate process for completing this decennial task.

Redistricting 2012

The redisctricting process started off on a positive note this time as the census granted us a fourth seat. That was expected but it was nice to have it official. The next positive step came as the legislature vowed to conduct the process in a transparent and participatory way. This included the fact that they made a tool available online where anyone could submit a map for consideration. Some people may complain that the promise of transparency was an illusion but if we are honest we must admit that generally speaking the process has been very open to inspection even if the development of specific maps was done without discussion.

Personally I was also excited when the House District base map was adopted because it placed me in a house district that was not straddling a county line – meaning that the county delegates in my precinct now have a say in selecting the nominee for their state representative rather than being forced to leave that responsibility with a lower number of state delegates from the precinct.

Everybody knew when this process started that the most maneuvering would come in connection with the Congressional District map. This has proven clearly to be the case. The problems associated with this map are not unique but people tend to care more about the outcome of this map than they do about some of the others. Most of the disappointing aspects of our redistricting process this year have centered on this map.

Right from the beginning while the maps for state house, senate, and school board were being developed the maneuvering for the congressional district map was already commencing. Democrats were preemptively accusing Republicans of planning to gerrymander the districts to oust Congressman Matheson. Coupled with that assertion they were vocally calling for the committee to carve out a safe democratic district in Salt Lake County so that the urban Democrats there would not feel disenfranchised by being lumped into districts with Republican dominated suburban and/or rural regions.

Despite such an ominous beginning on that important map I was very pleased when the six finalists were announced from the committee. Among the six maps were pizza slices as the Republicans tended to favor and doughnuts as the Democrats advocated for. There was one map among the finalists that was drawn by a citizen and even one map that bore no resemblance to either pizza or doughnuts.

The saddest part of the process came a few days later when the committee took one of the more political of the six finalists and incorporated the worst of both Democrat and Republican wishes to a horrid combination pizza/doughnut where half of the city of Bountiful is in the same district as St. George while carving out a safe Republican district in Utah County that is nearly surrounded by the convoluted South Davis to St. George district.

My Vantage Point

In order to put my description of the ideal redistricting process in context I feel I should share my political persuasion for any who are not already familiar with it. I am decidedly conservative. Of the two major parties I definitely identify most closely with the Republicans and would love to see Republicans in all four of our congressional seats – especially if they were serious about a sustainable fiscal policy (just being “Republican” is not good enough for me). I have been unimpressed by all the “Fair Boundaries” posturing which really amounts to an anti-Republican position despite the rhetoric of fairness. That being said I believe in the principle that everyone should get a fair say in the representation. I don’t believe that we should have four Republicans in Congress simply on the basis of a cleverly drawn map. Likewise I do not believe that we should create districts based on the current incumbents (either to protect or to oust them).

Redistricting Ideal

The ideal way to do redistricting would be to ignore any political considerations. It should be done by a trained cartographer/statistician who has no connection to the area being mapped. They should have access to the census data on population but no record of voting history or incumbency. When the number of districts is not changing the lines should follow the existing district boundaries as much as possible to maintain continuity for voters (especially if the lines had previously been determined according to these criteria). If the number of districts is changing there should be no reference to existing boundaries except possibly if one of the existing districts correlates closely to the ideal population for the new districts.

The problems in the current process are all political considerations such as how to protect or oust incumbents and what defines a community of interest.

The ideal process would be so politically agnostic that if citizens were randomly reassigned to new places of residence so that the population density was unchanged and demographics were completely altered the map would make as much sense before the reassignment as it did after. It makes sense to keep a county or city within one political subdivision where possible and to split it between as few as possible when necessary.

If we followed those criteria the best map of the six finalists was the one by David Garber. The second best of the six was the one by Steve Clark. Both of these were far and away better than the map by Rep. Sumsion that was tweaked to form the adopted base map. I am confident that the reason the Sumsion map was chosen instead was because of the other thing that those two maps have in common, they were both drawn by citizens (another political consideration) and therefore did not have a champion on the committee with as much emotional investment as Rep. Sumsion had for his map. In saying this I am not accusing Rep. Sumsion of anything nefarious or sinister. I fully expect that the author of each finalist map would consider their own map to be the best of the bunch. The problem is that these two maps, which were the best of the bunch, did not have a government official behind them to push for their adoption. I suspect that they were the first two dropped by the committee and that the Harper and Sumsion maps were the last two standing because they each incorporated the doughnut concept that the Democrats favored.