Features and Occasionals

Making Utah’s Electoral Districts Whole Again

By Betsy Burton

Better Boundaries is the answer.

It took over an hour for the crowd of 2,000 to get into the West High auditorium for Representative Chris Stewart’s first town meeting after last November’s election. At first the crowd was orderly. Then a huge screen dropped down in front of us displaying a pie chart of the location of Representative Stewart’s votes throughout his district. Stewart came forward to welcome us, noting the huge size of the crowd, and saying he assumed people were there because they didn’t agree with his stands on many of the issues. He pointed to the pie chart, explained the reality of his sliced and diced district and said, “As you can see here, what you think doesn’t really make a difference to me.”

He spoke the truth.

Stewart’s district has been so gerrymandered that he can safely ignore the opinions of those who vote in Salt Lake City, a city he represents. The way things are now structured, Piute County (population 11,000) or Sevier County (population 21,000) could well have more influence on decisions impacting Salt Lake County (population 1.12 million) than do its own residents. If you happen to live in either Salt Lake City or Salt Lake County, you may be surprised to learn that none of our four Representatives to Congress live in either place. This means the largest metropolitan area in the state is not represented by a single member of Congress who actually lives in the area.

But please, don’t think this is a partisan editorial. It is not. The sad truth is, this same thing would have happened had the Democrats been in power. It has happened in those states where they are.

Simply put, gerrymandering is when politicians (who always want to keep their power) pick their voters instead of voters picking their politicians. It’s not the way of democracy and it’s not new.

What’s new is that this process has become a science. Amazing computer software and access to big data has made picking and choosing voters not just easy but almost foolproof. That puts a dangerous weapon in the hands of politicians, whatever their party.

The only solution to this problem is to have district lines drawn by an independent commission required to follow strict criteria when they make their decisions. In the end, in Utah, the Constitution says the Legislature must sign off—but if the independent commission’s plan isn’t passed, the Legislature, too, would be required to follow the criteria. This would mean, among other things, that districts would be formed from neighboring areas, communities of interest would not be broken up, and partisan political information would not be used when drawing up the boundaries.

Better Boundaries is a citizen petition drive currently gathering signatures to get this issue on the 2018 ballot. Passage would give Utah an independent commission to draw state and federal district lines that are not gerrymandered.

The campaign wants you to pick your politicians again. I fully support the Better Boundaries campaign, and I encourage you to join in this effort by going to www.betterboundaries.org to find out how you can help make democracy work again.

Betsy Burton is the co-founder/owner of The King’s English in Salt Lake City, an author, and president of the National Booksellers Assn. She describes herself as “an activist for all things local.”

This article was originally published on January 31, 2018.