By Ralph Okerlund
Senate Chair of the Redistricting Committee
Work on the Redistricting Committee this year has been an incredible experience. Never before have so many citizens been so actively engaged in the process. Never have we received so much thoughtful, educated input. Our committee recommendations will be substantially better because of all the eyes on the details of the maps.
New technology has given *everyone* the opportunity to participate. The online mapping toolbox at RedistrictUtah.com has instilled participants with a keen understanding of the complexities of the process, esp. how population numbers drive the map. I’ve watched committee members make hundreds of changes to map proposals, based on citizen recommendations and expect to see many more.
One of the maps selected by the committee was actually proposed through the website by Robert Horning, a resident of Logan, Utah. We altered his map modestly to better incorporate citizen suggestions made in public hearings this summer.
Citizen participation has made us stronger and the process has been eye-opening for citizens and members of the committee alike. I think we’re on the right path and would like to see more of this. At conferences this summer, colleagues and staff from other states expressed that Utah is on the cutting edge of citizen inclusion and participation. They think that Utah is doing it right and I agree.
I am a little surprised to hear talk of litigation so early in the process. These threats aren’t motivated by actions taken by the legislature, because the legislature hasn’t acted yet. They are certainly not based on the maps, because most maps have yet to be drawn. None have been finalized.
It may be hard for cynics to imagine, but what if Utah does it right? What if we steer clear of most of the nefarious things redistricting partisans on both sides of the aisle have been guilty of in the past? Shouldn’t Utah have a chance to actually adopt a map before partisans decide to sue?
A little history
The process of redistricting was not always synonymous with litigation. It was simply done every 10 years, if the State Legislative body felt the adjustment was warranted. Then in 1962, the Supreme Court heard Baker v. Carr, where a Tennessee resident sued the state because redistricting had not happened for over 60 years. Within two years, 26 states had redrawn their legislative districts and by 1966, 46 had done so-complying with the original intent of census redistricting as prescribed by the Constitution.
In 1964, the Court heard another case involving unequal representation. This case, Reynolds v. Simms, held huge ramifications for State Governments by mandating equal sized districts.
These cases and others laid out clear requirements for state redistricting efforts. Sadly though, it seems that the need to solve past legislative mistakes in court has spawned the excessive use of lawsuits today.
The situation today
In other states there seems to be a new standard procedure for redistricting:
1. Every 10 years the Federal Government requires a census count.
2. In accordance with the new numbers, the State draws new district lines containing equal populations.
3. Some group, or group of groups, tries to redraw the lines in court and taxpayers fund the squabble.
In other states, legal challenges wait in the wings regardless of whether any offense is committed. In 2001, 47 states were subjected to redistricting litigation filed. Utah was not one of them.
Some predict that all 50 states will file this year. So far, 14 states have placeholder suits filed that challenge the equity of districts that have yet to be drawn. In Texas, there are 17 such challenges– so many that they have consolidated them into one suit, just to save time.
The judgments in these cases rarely find that the districts needed to be redrawn. In many cases, the lawsuits were nothing more than props for partisan publicity campaigns and an additional expenses for the taxpayer.
Utah is one of a very few states that have not yet climbed onto this litigation bandwagon. I hope we can continue to keep ourselves above the fray.
This blog post is an updated version of the op-ed published in the Deseret News, 8/30/11