Utah voters are one step closer to passing redistricting reform after election officials verified that organizers submitted enough signatures to get an initiative onto the ballot this November. The proposal would create a seven-member bipartisan commission where legislative leaders from both parties would each pick three members and the governor would appoint a seventh member as chair. While this would let Republicans appoint four of the seven members thanks to their hold on the governor's office, it would take the vote of at least one of the Democratic appointees to pass a map.
The proposal also restricts the criteria mapmakers can use, which the state courts would then be able to enforce. In order of priority, they are: following federal law; minimizing the number of divided municipalities; minimizing the number of divided counties second; promoting compactness; ensuring transportation connections exist within districts; preserving neighborhoods and communities of interest; following natural geography; and nesting districts so that state Senate and state House borders overlap as much as possible. Most importantly, it bans intentionally favoring or disfavoring any particular party or candidate.
Unfortunately, there are a couple of weaknesses in the law. For one, the GOP-dominated legislature would still be empowered to pass its own map if it doesn’t like the commission’s, though it would still be constrained by the criteria described above. The other is that it’s only a law: Even if the measure passes, it will only add a statute to the books rather than amend the state’s constitution, since Utah doesn’t permit voters to take the latter route. As a result, lawmakers could simply try to repeal the measure—as long as they’re willing to weather any potential blowback.
But if the proposal does become law, it’ll nevertheless represent a marked improvement on the status quo. As shown in the map at the top of this post, Utah could actually have one safely Democratic congressional district if Republicans hadn’t aggressively gerrymandered to ensure they would win all four House seats. While Utah is a very red state, the Salt Lake City area is a solidly blue island, and placing the bulk of it in a single district would allow Democrats to win their fair share of congressional seats, in sharp contrast to the current map that slices and dices Salt Lake’s urban core among three districts.