Could An Independent Commission End Utah Gerrymandering? Utah State Professor Weighs In

Jun 12, 2017

Credit Berkeley.edu

Details about a 2018 ballot initiative seeking an independent redistricting commission to work with Utah’s Legislature surfaced last week. 

According to political news site UtahPolicy.com, a group known as Utahns for Responsive Government intends to launch a ballot initiative which would lead to the creation of a seven member independent redistricting commission.

The commission aims to restore public trust by curbing the formation of district boundaries favoring an individual or political party, also known as gerrymandering.

Utah State political science professor, Michael Lyons, said -- while gerrymandering is difficult to prove due to geography and other factors -- Utah’s party proportions in the Legislature may suggest bias.

“One rough benchmark you could use for the Utah State Legislature is if there are twice as many Republicans as Democrats in the state and the Independents are twice as often to vote for Republicans, then we ought to have about twice as many Republican-controlled districts as Democratic-controlled districts; well we don’t," Lyons said. "We have somewhere along the lines of 80 percent or more Republican districts.”

While under half of the 50 states currently employ similar commissions to address disproportionate districts, Lyons warned that their independence can vary depending on how they’re set up.

“Most of them aren’t really very independent," he said. "You’ll have an independent commission which is selected by the leaders of the political parties in the state legislature and/or the governor and winds up with a majority of appointees who owe their appointments to one political party or the other.”

This is the case with the current proposal. Six members are chosen by party leadership in the state Legislature. The governor would select the chair commissioner. In the end, state legislators may still draw their own map regardless of the commission’s recommendation.

Lyons points to Iowa’s systems where a politically isolated body of geographers create district lines based on non-partisan information as being ideal.