Redistricting effort begins for county, schools
Voting district boundaries are redrawn every ten years as government agencies look at populations to make sure districts are equally represented in legislative bodies.
This can include the United States House of Representatives, the Utah State Legislature, and even the San Juan County Commission.
The U.S. Census is conducted every ten years in an attempt to count every resident in the United States. The data collected is used to determine legislative representation, as well as the allocation of federal funds.
After being conducted in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Census has begun to release data from the count to help in redistricting efforts at the federal, state, and county levels.
While redistricting normally happens after each Census, there are some exceptions. As a result of a 2015 lawsuit, the San Juan County Commission and school board districts were redrawn in 2018.
While there are exceptions as listed above, redistricting is largely driven by change in population. In San Juan County, the population fell by 1.5 percent, as there were 228 fewer residents from 2010 to 2020.
How that impacts the San Juan School Board and county commission districts depends on where within the county that population change occurrs.
With such a small change, it is possible the San Juan County Commission and San Juan School Board court mandated districts created in 2018 will not change drastically in the coming months.
In May, the county commission voted 2-1 to hire Bill Cooper to assess the 2020 Census data for San Juan County. Cooper will help draw new election district maps, if needed, for the county commission and the school board based on the data.
Cooper has prepared proposed redistricting maps of approximately 700 jurisdictions over 35 years. Cooper was also a consultant and expert for the Navajo Nation in their 2015 lawsuit against San Juan County regarding voting rights.
Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy, who brought the item to the commission agenda, said hiring Cooper would be the financially responsible thing to do as he compared Cooper’s $5,000 charge for 40 hours of work to the nearly $4 million the county paid in legal fees as a result of the 2015 Navajo Nation voting rights lawsuit.
County Clerk John David Nielson, speaking in public comment, suggested the county use a consultant for redistricting that had not been an expert for the Navajo Nation in the lawsuit.
The commission eventually voted 2-1 to hire Cooper to lead county redistricting efforts as needed. Commissioners Kenneth Maryboy and Willie Grayeyes voted for and Commissioner Bruce Adams voted against. At their recent August 17 meeting, a contract with Cooper was approved unanimously.
At the May meeting, County Attorney Kendall Laws recommended the creation of a redistricting committee, with representation from communities throughout the county to assist Cooper in his efforts.
At their August 17 meeting, the county commission rejected the creation of an independent redistricting commission by a vote of 2-1.
The proposed San Juan County volunteer redistricting commission would act in an advisory role to the county commission. Representation would have been made up of one resident from Monticello, Blanding, and Bluff as well as one person from the northern part of the county, one in the south and a representative appointed by the school district.
Requirements include being a registered voter in San Juan County for two years, and having not been in or ran for public office in the past three years, nor served as a lobbyist or member of a campaign committee.
After voting against the proposed redistricting commission, Commissioner Willie Grayeyes explained his vote.
“The Commissioners have direct responsibility and need to directly receive the mappings for discussion and final presentation,” said Grayeyes. “Other review bodies might create delays, which might also create a different reflection away from the local governances both on and off the Navajo Nation.”
At the meeting, Commissioner Adams said the redistricting commission would provide input only if Cooper needed it. “If he doesn’t need their input,” said Adams. “There will be no reasoning for the redistricting commission to help him.”
The commission voted 2-1 against the creation of the county redistricting commission, with Grayeyes and Maryboy voting against and Adams voting for.
San Juan County had a 1.5 percent decrease in population. A report from the Utah Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel shows that other state and federal districts representing San Juan County had more significant population changes but did not grow as much as the statewide average.
While Utah grew at a statewide rate of 18.4 percent, the Third Congressional District grew by 13.9 percent, the Utah Senate 27th District grew by 5.8 percent, the Utah Representative 73rd District grew by 0.5 percent, and the Utah School Board 14th District grew by 6.9 percent.
With those rates all lagging behind statewide growth, it is anticipated that all four districts that represent San Juan County will have some sort of boundary change following redistricting.
In order to equally divide representation in Utah, each of the four Congressional districts should represent 817,904 Utahns.
Under current boundaries, Districts 1, 2, and 3 need more voters in their district and District 4 needs to shed voters.
To rebalance the state, District 4 could have residents carved out of its boundaries and assigned to the other three. Or the voting districts could possibly be redrawn all together.
Utah’s Fourth Congressional District is currently the one swing-seat in Utah. In 2018, Democrat Ben McAdams won the seat by 0.25 percent of the vote. McAdams was then defeated by Republican Burgess Owens in 2020 by one percent of the vote.
San Juan County is within the 3rd Congressional District of Utah, represented by Republican John Curtis. The 3rd Congressional District has 786,714 residents in its boundaries, meaning the district is short 31,190 constituents as currently divided.
San Juan County representation in the state house and state senate is also undersized, according to state data.
In the state Senate, San Juan County is in District 27 represented by Republican Senator David Hinkins of Orangeville. The district is 11,969 short of the ideal size of 112,814 Utahns in each state senate district.
In the state House of Representatives, San Juan County is in District 73, represented by Republican Representative Phil Lyman of Blanding. The district is 6,591 short of the ideal size of 43,672 Utahns in each state house district.
On the state school board, San Juan County is in District 14 represented by Mark Huntsman of Fillmore. The district is short 21,201 of the ideal size of 218,108 Utahns in each district of the state school board.
The shortage in each area means the districts representing San Juan County will need to encompass a larger area than currently constituted in order to make representation more equal.
While federal law requires redistricting of US House of Representative seats to have as close as equal populations per seat, exactly how those districts are drawn can cause conflict.
Concerns of politicians using their elected power to redraw district boundaries to remain in power dates back to 1812. Massachusetts Governor Eldbrige Gerry’s redistricting of the state senate resulted in a bizarre-shaped district created to favor Gerry’s Democratic-Republican Party.
A Boston Gazette political cartoonist drew wings and fangs on the salamander shaped district and the term Gerrymander was born.
Fights over what constitutes fair districts and what is gerrymandering continue in the U.S. today; they even include San Juan County.
A 2015 lawsuit by the Navajo Nation against San Juan County resulted in a restructuring of voting districts in the county for both the County Commission and San Juan School Board.
The lawsuit pointed to the fact that while 50.1 percent of the population of the county was Native American, the county had never had a majority of Native Americans on the county commission.
As a result of the lawsuit, the voting districts were redrawn under the eye of a judge. The 2018 election resulted in the first Native American majority on the San Juan County Commission.
Additional complaints from neighbors to San Juan County have been voiced. In the Democrat-controlled state of Colorado, current proposals would split Montezuma County between two state representative districts. Montezuma County voters lean Republican.
In the Republican-controlled state of Utah, Grand County is also split between two state representative districts. Grand County voters lean Democrat.
Just as district boundaries is a hot topic in the region, it is also a hot topic in Utah.
In Utah, the state legislature draws and approves district maps for the US House of Representatives and both the senate and house of the State of Utah and the state school board.
However, several groups have been looking to change how Utah draws its districts. In 2018, Utah voters narrowly passed Proposition 4 by just over one-half of a percent.
The proposition called for the creation of an independent commission made up of seven people to draft and recommend to the Utah State Legislature maps for congressional and state legislative districts according to certain criteria.
Similar independent redistricting commissions exist to aid state legislative bodies in a handful of other states. Leadership of both political parties in the state appoints individuals to the committee.
To serve on the independent committee, individuals must not be a lobbyist or have been a candidate for political office and must not have received compensation from a political party.
After the bill passed, the Utah state legislature altered the proposition in its implementation. The proposition intended the Utah commission to replace a commission made up of state legislators, but that didn’t happen.
The state legislature did allow for the creation of the independent redistricting commission, but it did not dissolve its own committee made up of elected representatives.
Now, both committees will use data to draw district maps for Utah to present to the state legislative body.
The two committees will come to southeastern Utah to seek input from the public.
The Independent Redistricting Commission will hold a public hearing on Friday, September 3 in Monticello.
The State Legislative Committee will hold a public meeting on Wednesday, October 6 in Moab.