Utah Redistricting

The changes to Utah’s tax code was not the only big issue in which Huntsman was involved last week. In response to the likely approval for another Utah seat in the House of Representatives, The governor also unveiled a redistricting plan for Utah’s Representatives. The plan has been met with scorn by many in both parties; by the Republicans for conceding any sort of opportunity of success to the Democrats, and by the Democrats for restricting their potential opportunities.

Redistricting will always be a thorny political issue. In an ideal world, a state could simply be cut up into a grid to provide equal blocks uninfluenced by political considerations. The realities of geography and demographic make this impossible. I think it would be preferable for an independent, non-partisan organization to draw up the borders, so as to make them as fair as possible. Many of the European democracies have such permanent boards, resulting in fewer allegations of gerrymandering than in the U.S. Of course, this solution is not perfect either. Just because the people who would make up such a panel are not official representatives of either mainstream party would hardly mean that they are non-partisan or unbiased. No matter who is chosen, the participants will bring into play their own agendas and biases, whether subconsciously or deliberately. The idea of truly objective districting may be a fantasy.

Yet I’m not so cynical as to abandon the goal of honorable redistricting. Despite our human failings, we need to strive for the best we can, not give in to our worst instincts. And both of our mainstream parties have failed to do that time and again. Much has been made in recent years of the successful effort, spearheaded by Tom Delay, to redistrict Texas to produce more Republican seats and shore up the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. His defenders insist that they weren’t gerrymandering, but rather fixing the manipulative districting performed by their state’s Democrats while in power. Which side is right? I’ve no idea. Given the distinct lack of ethical standards on the part of Delay, I’m not disposed to put much faith in him. On the other hand, I’m sure Democrats have been perfectly willing to play the same game when they’ve had the upper hand. I’ve even heard tell that the two parties have conspired together in California to divvy up the districts in the last few rounds of redistricting, compromising to district in such a way as to make the seats currently held by each respective party “safer.” What a shameful way to betray the people.

There seems little question that the Utah redistricting which followed the 2000 election was an example of flagrant gerrymandering. The Utah Republican Party, having grown increasingly arrogant in their grip on political power within the state, was outraged by Jim Matheson’s victory. How dare a Democrat win a seat on the House of Representatives from us?! I’ve heard no logical explanation for the way the more liberal Salt Lake City was fragmented among the rest of the solidly Republican state, diluting the political power of the liberals. I can only conclude that the redistricting was consciously crafted for no more noble purpose than to remove Matheson from office and further consolidate Republican control.

The addition of the fourth congressional seat gives Utah the perfect opportunity to remedy the situation. But how best to accomplish this?

I gather from all of the news reports and interviews I heard on the subject that Huntsman had two main priorities: keeping counties as unified as possible (ie, not breaking counties apart into different districts), and being “fair” to the incumbents. The first of those considerations seems rather agreeable. Any given community is more likely to have shared concerns and interests. There will certainly not be unanimity of opinion on those concerns or interests, but they are more likely to common set of concerns. For example, rural southern Utah, with its unique environmental and demographic pressures, is likely to have a set of concerns and interests subtly different from that of rural northern Utah. Both are more different from the more suburban Wasatch Front area, which is different from the urban Salt Lake City area. It therefore makes sense to have the districts of the House of Representatives, specifically designed to be accountable to local communities, involve collections of discrete communities or regions which are similar in nature.

Of course, this is admittedly an oversimplification. No given region is entirely self-contained. Each flows into one another, with the differences between each being somewhat less than distinct. There will often be a point at which the division between a given community or region is arbitrary. There is also the issue of demographic fairness. In order to ensure that the population of each district is roughly equal, it may be necessary to place part of region with a high population density and add it to a sparcely populated region. Nevertheless, the principle is a valid one. As long as we make this principle our goal, we can accomodate the necessary deviations. The previous gerrymandering, which arbitrarily carved up Salt Lake County with little regard for community unity, gave no consideration to this principle. At first glance, Governor Huntsman’s interest in maintaining the integrity of the counties seems like a sensible step toward honoring that principle.

There have been grumblings among the state’s Democrats that this districting plan is unfair to them. Some suggest that the districting hinders the ability of the Democratic party to compete in any district outside of Matheson’s. The accusation likely bears merit. But those Democrats must also face the reality of their situation. The vast majority of Utah’s communities outside the Salt Lake Valley feel a greater affinity for the Republican party. While sad, It is right and proper for the districting to reflect that reality. Liberals must focus on changing that reality by using reason and persuasion to overcome the decades of brainwashing by conservatism. To resort to political manipulation would be neither effective nor just.

The second of Huntsman’s priorities (as I understand them) is to be “fair” to all incumbents. What is the purpose of helping protect incumbents? Incumbents hardly fight an uphill battle in getting reelected. It seems to me that the public is best served if congressmen are made more vulnerable to defeat in election. If incumbents are performing satisfactorily, the electorate will presumably vote their approval. If they work is not deemed adequate, should there be any barriers to the electorate selecting a more suitable representative? Would this not serve to keep congressmen more accountable to their constituents?

No, it is not the current slate of Representatives for whom the governor and the redistricting plan should be concerned. It is the public. I say this despite the fact that the current redistricting plan benefits my political interests personally. I welcome a change which will make the incumbent Democrat, Jim Matheson, my Representative. I would be hopeful that the district changes would allow Matheson, with fewer conservative constituents to placate, to unleash his inner liberal—or allow us to select a Representative who will. But I put principle over personal satisfaction. If it best serves the public and their communities to change the districts in a manner which doesn’t serve the interests of any of the incumbents, the public interest should take precedent. Let Governor Huntsman remember: We the people are not here to serve the needs of a political system established to serve the politicians. He, the congressmen, the rest of the state’s politicians and their parties are there to serve our political system, which is there to serve the people.

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One Response to “Utah Redistricting”

  1. Kim Higginson Says:

    Hello, my name is Kim and I am working with a group of like-minded Utahns who are staging a rally this coming Saturday to bring attention to this issue. This is likely just the first of several events we will hold in an effort to educate voters about this problem. Anything you can do to help us spread the word would be much appreciated! More info can be found on our website, or at the event page here:

    http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=142332609165591

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