While support is shrinking from last year, a new poll shows that Utahns still favor by nearly a 2-1 margin creating an independent commission to redraw the state’s political boundaries during its once-every-decade redistricting.
The Better Boundaries initiative, which allows voters to create such a commission, will appear on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.
A new Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll shows that 50 percent of Utahns favor the initiative, 28 percent oppose it, and a large 23 percent are undecided.
That is down from a similar poll a year ago, which showed a 61-22 percent margin of support.
“We continue to see from this poll that a majority of Utahns agree that voters should choose their leaders, politicians shouldn’t choose their voters,” said Jeff Wright, co-chairman of Better Boundaries and a former Republican congressional candidate. His other co-chairman is Ralph Becker, a Democrat who was mayor of Salt Lake City.
“We are confident that, as we continue to have a dialogue with voters, the Better Boundaries initiative will pass, making Utah’s government more accountable to the people,“ Wright said.
Utahns from across the political spectrum support the initiative — including a plurality of Republicans, despite widespread allegations that gerrymandering has helped that party in the past.
A 45-30 percent margin of Republicans favor it, as do a 61-23 percent majority of Democrats and 52-26 percent of unaffiliated voters.
The initiative would create a seven-member commission appointed by the governor and majority and minority party leaders of the Legislature. It would be banned from using partisan data, and instructed to follow city, county and geographic lines where possible.
The Legislature would be required to vote up or down on its plans, and provide explanations if they are rejected.
Removing the ultimate power from the Legislature to draw new political maps would require a state constitutional amendment. Such an amendment would have to be initiated by the Legislature, an unlikely prospect.
The initiative comes amid persistent allegations of gerrymandering, including the last time the state redrew boundaries after the 2010 census.
Then-Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson accused GOP legislators of splitting up his old district three ways to make re-election impossible in the district where he lived — so he chose to run in an adjacent one that included more of his old constituents.
With the unusual move, Matheson barely won re-election — by 768 votes — over GOP challenger Mia Love in 2012. Two years later, he chose not to seek re-election and Love won the seat.
Since then, Utah’s U.S. House delegation has had no member from Salt Lake County, the state’s most populous, for the first time in many decades.
Last year, a nationwide analysis by The Associated Press said Utah Republicans won an average of 64 percent of the votes in each state legislative district, but GOP candidates won 83 percent of all the seats. It concluded that Utah Republicans won three more seats than they likely would have if the districts had been drawn more objectively.
Legislative leaders defend their past redistricting as fair, and question the need for a redistricting commission.
“There is no such thing as an independent commission — independent of the Legislature, maybe,” said Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy. “People think that independent means there are no biases. There are going to be biases.”
He adds, “You’re giving a lot of this drawing over to people who are not accountable or not elected.” If voters don’t like plans drawn by legislators, they can vote them out, he said.
House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said, “I think you want your elected body doing that work and being accountable to those they represent. And you’ve got people who are ready to sue you if you do it wrong. And that does not go unnoticed.”
Hughes and Niederhauser noted that the last time the Legislature redrew boundaries, it invited any interested individual or group to submit proposals by using map-drawing software made available to the public. Lawmakers held hearings statewide and they say all proposals were taken seriously.
As a sign of fairness, Hughes said some GOP members were consolidated into shared districts — meaning someone had to go. “When you see colleagues whose districts have been combined within the majority party, that would signal we are trying to be as fair as we can.”
Also, Niederhauser said a sign of fairness is the state has not been sued over its redistricting plans.
“No matter how you draw them, somebody can say they are gerrymandered,” he said. “That’s the argument everybody uses to try to minimize what was done.”
Both leaders said they believe lawmakers will seriously consider plans submitted by a redistricting commission, but may reject it. “I think we’d consider what they draw, just like we’d consider another organization that would draw things. That’s what we did last time,” Niederhauser said.
Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, notes she and others pushed for a redistricting commission for years, and says it makes sense — but will never happen unless voters approve it in an initiative.
“It’s just counterintuitive to allow that when your own interests as an incumbent could be jeopardized by an independent commission,” so legislators won’t pass it, she said. While parties worried about such a commission that redrew Salt Lake County Council districts in 2010, “everyone said that worked really well.”