A Case for an Independent Districting Commission

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ger·ry·man·der

verb

To manipulate the boundaries of an electoral constituency so as to favor one party or class.

To achieve a result by manipulating the boundaries of an electoral constituency.

"a total freedom to gerrymander the results they want"

Many have claimed that the current electoral district maps in Utah have been gerrymandered, particularly the four US House districts. We have three (possibly four) solidly Republican districts. Less than 20% of the state house seats and 17% of the state senate are held by Democrats. Yet, Democrats frequently get above 25% of the votes across the state.

So, what would be some alternatives?

Imagine three scenarios:

1)     Create a solidly Democrat district and three Republican districts. After all, about 25% of the state is consistently Democrat. Seems fair, right?

2)     Make each of the four districts equally weighted – each is roughly 25% Democrat, 75% Republican. But, this would mean all of them end up being Republican districts. The Democrat vote would be diluted. But at least they are all equal and have proportional representation, right?

3)     Make two districts that are competitive, while two others are solidly Republican. Seems like a reasonable 50-50 compromise, right?

The problem is that all these scenarios involve gerrymandering in some way or another. In all these solutions, boundaries would have to be drawn by taking into account the political parties and voting patterns. These maps would be drawn with a specific result in mind, the result being the perpetuation or increase of partisan advantage.

There is no “right” answer to drawing voting district maps. There are countless possible outcomes. But that’s the point. This is why we need an independent commission. An independent commission emphasizes the process of map-drawing as the solution rather than any one outcome being the “right” solution.

The problem with gerrymandering is not necessarily the resulting boundaries, but the process used to get to those results.

If an independent commission were to have drawn the same boundaries we have today, I would support those boundaries. I would have more trust in them.

But that’s not what we have. In the current system we have 1) legislators drawing the maps who are the same ones seeking office in those districts, and/or 2) the people drawing the maps have direct ties to partisan politics or party loyalty.

We should have an independent districting commission just like we have an independent judiciary. If a judge were to potentially benefit from the outcome of a court case, that judge would be asked to recuse himself. Whether or not the judge actually does benefit from the outcome is beside the point. The issue is the potential for conflict and the appearance of partiality.

When it comes to complex problems such as these, it is more important that the right people make the decision than that the right decision be made. The state legislators are not the right people to be making decisions regarding electoral districts. This does not mean that I doubt their ability to make impartial decisions, just like I don’t doubt an individual judge’s ability to do so. To support an independent commission is not to make a personal indictment of any legislator’s judgement.

An independent commission would distance the political parties from the process, and eliminate partisan accusations, be they fair or unfair.

Imagine what might happen next year in 2018. If McAdams wins the 4th congressional district, the Republicans might say “See! See! There’s no gerrymandering because a Democrat was able to win.” But, if Mia Love wins, the Democrats might say, “See! See! The gerrymandered districts prevented McAdams from winning!”

If an independent commission had drawn the map, neither of these arguments would be valid. No one could blame any party for the result. Just like our justice system, the district boundaries would be decided in a non-partisan manner.

Now, the question of how to choose who sits on the commission is another matter. I won’t attempt to offer specific solutions here, but rather some guidelines in terms of who might be on the commission and the rules they play by.

Commissioners should be assigned like a jury. They could be selected randomly or chosen on a rotating basis from a certain segment of the population, or from a pool of gubernatorial appointees.

The commissioners should not be allowed to run in any of the districts they draw (until after the following election cycle).

The commissioners should not have any association with any party in an official capacity such as party leadership, or hold any partisan-elected office.

The districts should be as geographically contiguous as possible.

No partisan, social, religious, or economic factors should be considered in determining electoral district boundaries. Only natural or man-made geographic features (lakes, rivers, roads), or existing political boundaries (cities, county lines, etc.) may be considered.

We as voters in the state, not the state legislature, ultimately decide the rules we play by. These guidelines will ensure that partisan politics is “out of bounds” when it comes to the game of determining the electoral districts within the state.

 

Russell Duncan is a native and life-long resident of Utah. He holds a bachelor’s degree in history education and political science, and a master’s degree in instructional technology. He previously served as an intern in the state legislature’s 2011 general session. Russell currently serves on the state instructional materials commission, and has previously served on a charter school board. He serves as a precinct organizer of the United Utah Party for the American Fork area.