Groups looking for public input on redistricting
“I ask myself what should I do about San Juan County? I can’t go east; I can’t go south. I’ve got to either go west or I’ve got to go north.”
This question regarding state and federal district boundaries posed by former Utah State Senate President Lyle Hillyard will ultimately be decided by the Utah State legislature. But until then, San Juan County residents can have a say in who they share state representation with.
Hillyard and the other six members of the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission visited Monticello on Friday, September 3 to seek public input regarding redistricting in Utah.
Every ten years, following the US Census, Utah re-draws the federal US Congressional districts as well as the state senate, congressional, and school board districts.
This year, the impacts of COVID-19 delayed the results of the 2020 Census, leaving legislators just a few months to finalize voting districts before January 2022.
Now two state groups are working to create maps for the legislature’s approval. One is the Legislative Redistricting Committee made up of 20 state representatives; the other is the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission (UIRC).
The UIRC was created as a result of Proposition 4, narrowly passed by voters in 2018. The commission is made up of seven representatives, with one appointee by the governor, three by legislative representatives from the Republican Party, and three by representatives from the Democratic Party.
While the state and federal redistricting will take place under the direction of the Utah state legislature, the re-drawing of the San Juan County Commission and San Juan School Board districts will take place under the direction of the San Juan County Commission.
The UIRC and the Legislative Redistricting Committee are both creating draft maps and seeking public input on their proposals for re-districting Utah. The public can provide their own draft maps on the organization website, as well as feedback via email and public meetings.
The UIRC visited Monticello on September 3, while the Legislative Redistricting Committee will be in Moab on October 6.
At the September 3 meeting in Monticello, the commission asked for input on how to shape the districts that San Juan County will be a part of.
San Juan County is currently in the 73rd congressional district of the state House of Representatives, represented by Phil Lyman of Blanding. The county is in the 27th State Senate District, represented by David Hinkins of Orangeville.
The county is in the State School board 14th district represented by Mark Huntsman of Fillmore, and the Third congressional district in the US House of Representatives is represented by John Curtis of Provo.
To divide populations equally, each state house district needs a population of 43,622 residents while state senate districts need a population of 112,814, the state school board needs a population of 218,108, and the congressional districts need 817,904.
With Colorado to the east and Arizona to the south, San Juan County has 14,518 residents, meaning the additional population has to come from the north or west of the county to make up the districts.
UIRC commissioner and former member of the US House of Representative Rob Bishop pointed out whichever way you go for the larger districts, including the US House of Representatives and the State School Board, you’ll likely run into urban populations.
“If you go north to Grand County, that district is going to go into the entire basin,” said Hillyard. “Or is it better for you to go west in which you’re going to go to the outskirts of St. George at best, and maybe into Cedar City too? You’ve got to tell us the best direction to take you.”
In addition to the challenges of the larger districts, Commissioner Hillyard also asked for feedback about the state house of representatives district, the smallest unit the commission is mapping.
“Do we take San Juan County and go west and end up in Kane County with Kanab?” asked Hillyard. “Or do we go north into Grand which appears to me to be logical because of the [Colorado] River?”
Hillyard points out that if the district does go into Grand, the follow-up question is should the boundaries follow Highway 6 through parts of Carbon and Emery County? Or should it go north into the Uintah Basin even though there’s not a road connecting the district?
In response, San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams pointed out that there is already a working relationship as part of a four-county Association of Local Governments between San Juan, Grand, Emery, and Carbon counties.
Blanding City Council Member Cheryl Bowers said she’d like to see the house district go west.
“The counties that are west of us are very similar to ours,” said Bowers. “Except, again, we don’t want to lose our voice if we’re talking about going too far into the St. George area. Then I’d disagree.
“My only concern with [going north] is, is Grand going to be underrepresented? But I think Price and the Uintah Basin would be great for us.”
Monticello City Council member and County Republican Party Chair Kim Henderson also shared that she would not like to see San Juan and Grand counties in the same house district.
“I do feel that Grand County and San Juan County are very different. In a lot of ways. I’d dare say that we’re probably polar opposites,” said Henderson. “So, to me, it doesn’t make sense to bunch us with somebody that we have very few similarities with on school district levels, on local levels on economic levels, just very different with the bigger areas.”
Currently, San Juan County is in a house district which includes all of Kane, Wayne, Garfield, and Piute counties, with parts of Beaver and Sevier counties as well.
It remains to be seen whether the boundaries keep a similar shape with south central Utah or goes up through Grand County into Uintah County or up through Grand and includes parts of Emery and Carbon counties.
Although the public hearing was centered around re-districting, the concept of representation or the lack thereof in San Juan County was also a key talking point.
At the meeting, Commissioner Adams noted that the size of the current geographic district requires more than six hours of driving from one end to the other.
Adams spoke in favor of a system more similar to what the federal government has, where each state has two senators and the house of representatives is based more on population.
“It would be satisfactory to me if every county in the state of Utah, all 29 counties, had a representative,” said Adams. “Wouldn’t it be nice if every single county had a representative in the house of Representatives?
“And every county could talk to their representative about issues. I know a lot of the larger counties would end up with multiple representatives, but...since I’ve been a commissioner, it seems like every time we redistrict, the representation from San Juan County gets lumped in with multiple counties.”
Adam’s idea was echoed by Monticello resident Shanon Brooks, who said the state needs to return to federalism.
“Incorporat[ing] two elements of that sovereignty and that is population and then the sovereignty of smaller political units, in this case, I’m more interested in counties,” said Brooks. “I really appreciate what Bruce said, there was a time when San Juan County was represented in and of itself.”
The idea has been discussed recently in San Juan County. Representative Phil Lyman sponsored a bill in the 2021 legislature to require that each county have a representative in the Utah statehouse. Although the bill inspired some discussion on the issue, it did not advance out of committee.
At the September 3 meeting, Hillyard explained the idea was defeated by the US Supreme Court in the 1964 Reynolds v Sims case, where the court ruled that legislative districts within U.S. states must have substantially equal populations.
“We could spend our time and do a map like that. It would either be rejected by the legislature out of hand or a court would strike it down, so we’d be wasting our time to do it,” Hillyard explained. “I understand your argument because Rich County has been a favorite part of mine, and they say the same thing to me.”
Lack of representation was also discussed by McCracken Mesa resident Susie Philemon. Philemon said she and fellow Navajo members of San Juan County have not been represented and have been pushed aside.
Philemon shared concerns about the lack of resources for school children and investment from elected officials.
“I’m just asking for representation, and I don’t know if this will ever change,” said Philemon. “This school district we have or the state the way that it’s drawn has always gone vertically from the south to the north.
“I don’t know if it’s ever going to change. If we go horizontal towards Hurricane, maybe people will be different to us from there. Maybe there will be a strong voice for us.”
Utah residents can learn more about the redistricting process, submit public comments, and even draw maps through online tools at UIRC.Utah.Gov and Redistricting.Utah.Gov.