A lawsuit is asking the courts to overturn Utah’s new congressional map and give an independent redistricting commission the power to create political boundaries going forward.
The complaint alleges that the map approved by the Utah Legislature last year represents an “extreme partisan gerrymander” that undermines Utahns’ constitutional rights to meaningfully participate in elections.
“The congressional map enacted by the Legislature violates those rights because it creates elections that are neither free, nor fair,” said David Reymann, attorney for the plaintiffs, which include the League of Women Voters of Utah and Mormon Women for Ethical Government.
Reymann and his clients held a news conference outside the Utah Capitol on Thursday to announce the suit.
Utah voters narrowly voted to approve an independent redistricting commission in 2018 when they passed Proposition 4, which was backed by the group Better Boundaries. In 2020, the Utah Legislature compromised with Better Boundaries organizers and agreed to let the newly-created Independent Redistricting Commission recommend maps while still giving the Legislature final say.
Last fall, the Legislature ignored the Commission’s recommendations and went with a map they drew themselves.
The redistricting process only happens once a decade, setting political boundaries for years to come.
“The power to enact laws derives from the people, it doesn’t come from the Legislature,” Reymann continued. “The people of Utah exercised that right, loudly and clearly, when they enacted Proposition 4 to get politics out of redistricting. And when the Legislature discarded that law, they trampled those rights and far overstepped their legitimate role in our government.”
He said the “cavalier way in which it was done” is an example that the balance of power between the people and the Legislature is “dangerously out of balance in this state.”
Catherine Weller, president of the League of Women Voters of Utah, said the Legislature’s actions confirmed and validated those who feel their voices and votes don’t matter.
“The people of Utah deserve better,” Weller said. “Our voices deserve to be heard. We need fair maps that give our residents equal say in shaping their communities and their futures for the next 10 years.”
Gov. Spencer Cox signed HB2004 in November, finalizing the new congressional districts. At the time, he said the Legislature is “fully within their rights” to draw Utah’s political maps, and essentially said gerrymandering happens all the time across the country, no matter what party is in power.
“If you have to divide counties, Republicans are always going to divide counties with lots of Democrats in them,” Cox said on his live Facebook town hall days before signing the bill. “And Democrats are always going to divide counties with lots of Republicans in them. It’s happening all across the country.”
Cox briefly addressed the issue during his monthly news conference on Thursday, saying he doesn’t comment on pending litigation. Asked if he didn’t think it was gerrymandering, Cox said, “Correct.” After a pause, he then clarified, adding, “illegal gerrymandering.”
Reymann said the governor’s comments were “at least a tacit admission that it’s possible for the Legislature to go too far.” He argued that the new maps cross the line of acceptable behavior in redistricting, and “it’s the role of the courts to say, ‘You’ve gone too far.’”
The primary concern from the plaintiffs is that the Legislature used a strategy called “cracking,” or breaking up an area to deprive it of political power. The current map divides Salt Lake County into four separate congressional districts, all of which skew heavily Republican.
The Princeton Gerrymandering Project gave Utah’s maps a zero for partisan fairness on their redistricting report card, with estimates showing the GOP holds at least a 20 point advantage in all four districts. In 2020, nearly 37% of Utahns voted for a Democrat for the U.S. House of Representatives.
It’s not just Democrats who are concerned with the boundaries. Victoria Reid, a registered Republican from Millcreek, said she was “dismayed” to see the Legislature “subvert the will of the people during its redistricting process.” She said lawmakers introduced their own maps “in direct opposition to the people’s voice.”
Reid argued that the Legislature failed to protect communities by splitting Millcreek into four different districts.
“Instead, my new congressional district extends 120 miles west to Nevada, 350 miles south to Arizona, while slicing through my neighborhood, my city and my county,” she said. “Now I’m a resident of Congressional District 2 and I am a 45-minute walk from voters in districts 1, 3 and 4, but hundreds of miles from citizens in my own congressional district that our elected leaders so confidently perverted.”
Reid said the process was “unethical and contrary to the values of the Republican Party. By gerrymandering me into an ultra-conservative district, the Legislature has taken away my freedom to try to elect a moderate representative.”
While there are many factors that contribute to political polarization and extremism, Vox has reported that “representatives do become somewhat more ideologically extreme in more lopsided districts, and gerrymandering could certainly help explain this.”
Malcolm Reid, who is married to Victoria, said the Legislature “acted in bad faith, hearing only what they wanted to hear,” and called the process a “facade.” The couple moved from Minnesota in 2018. Both are signed on as plaintiffs.
“I’ve heard much about ‘the Utah way’ since moving here,” he said. “As someone who cares about Utah, the way forward must enable all of Utah’s people to have a voice.”
Better Boundaries executive director Katie Wright released a statement on Thursday praising the lawsuit.
“This is a foundational case and will decide whether power lies within the people of Utah or if lawmakers simply get to choose their voters. ... We stand united with all Utahns who want transparency and accountability from their elected officials and are proud to support this effort financially,” the statement read.
The lawsuit was filed in Utah’s 3rd Judicial District Court and lists the Utah Legislature and the Legislative Redistricting Committee as defendants, along with committee chair Sen. Scott Sandall, House Speaker Brad Wilson, Senate President Stuart Adams and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson.
Reymann said he is encouraged to see overly partisan redistricting maps thrown out by other state courts, including in North Carolina. He argued that there are similarities between Utah’s constitution and those of other states, and he hopes that a Utah court will likewise step in.
The lawsuit only addresses Utah’s congressional map, but Reymann said there are “concerns” about maps for Utah Senate, House and School Board as well.
This early on, Reymann said, it’s hard to tell how quickly the court might reach a resolution. The new boundaries will likely stay in place for the 2022 midterms, and the complaint specifically asks that a new process be in place in time for the 2024 primaries.
Reymann said the plaintiffs don’t want to “engage in a rushed process with primaries coming up” this year, which is why they’re looking ahead to 2024.
Contributing: Katie McKellar