For all its proud patriotism, Utah sure has a funny way of skipping out on its civic duty at the ballot box.
Because when it comes to turn-out, the Beehive State is one of the lowest in the country in voter participation, and Democratic State Chair Daisy Thomas thinks she knows why: the districts are drawn in a way that makes people apathetic.
Thomas accused Utah’s all-GOP congressional delegation of overlooking the needs of minorities—especially Native Americans—as well as urban dwellers. And, since they’re safe in their districts, she says, potential voters are left asking themselves, What’s the point?
“With four congressional seats, and 30 percent voting Democrat, mathematically, it shouldn’t be solidly Republican every single election,” she said. “There is no reason for that, and the fact is, we need to be promoting inclusion and a representative democracy if we are going to make sure that the issues of the people of Utah are being addressed.”
And at the state level, the apathy is apparent in the number of uncontested legislative seats: 23 during the last election—double the number it’s been in the past.
Thomas made these remarks at KRCL RadioActive’s forum on Redistricting Utah on Thursday evening at the Marmalade Library. She was one of five in a panel made up of members from both parties as well as independent voices.
This discussion happened at a time when one group is gathering signatures for Better Boundaries, a ballot initiative which would establish an independent advisory redistricting panel. As is, the Legislature draws up the district boundaries after the census for congress and themselves, which many people have decried as an inherent conflict of interest.
Not everyone on the dais was in favor of the move. Republican Party Chair Rob Anderson, who says he sought the position to counterbalance the extreme wing in his party, predicted the measure would fail.
Asked by an audience member whether he was comfortable with partisan gerrymandering, Anderson admitted he wasn’t. But, he said, the commissioners would be tossed into a “political morass,” and vetting its members would be challenging. Anderson assured the crowd his lack of support wasn’t because his party is the one in power.
Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Hauk, D-Salt Lake City, said there is precedent. A few other states employ independent redistricting panels, and, in fact, Salt Lake County used a redistricting commission in 2011 to draw the county council districts.
“At the end of that process, it went really well, and that it was very transparent and was very fair,” she said. “Oftentimes people say ‘We don’t think an independent commission will work.’ We’ve already utilized it in the largest populated county in our state, and it worked rather well.”
Panelist Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah, said his interest is in recognizing that redistricting fundamentally affects the way people view the electoral process.
“Do they see the process as fair? Do they see it as a process in which they think their vote counts? Even if they vote for the losing candidate, do they feel like the election was conducted in such a way that they would have had a fair shot if more people would have agreed with their point of view? If we get that out of our elections, then we’ve accomplished a lot,” he said.
But, Burbank noted, if voters look at the system and see a rigged facade, where special interests behind the scene are drawing lines and manipulating outcomes, “then that clearly is a losing proposition for all of us.”