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Op-Ed: Katharine Biele: Utah Legislature takes away power that belongs to the people

This op-ed was originally published in The Salt Lake Tribune

Utah Republicans got what they wanted – but it wasn’t enough. Instead, the party that has long ruled over this western state threw out the intent of a voter-supported initiative and further gerrymandered the state – if that’s possible,

Now the Legislature faces not only a lawsuit over its actions, but also an unprecedented partisan backlash that has Democrats and unaffiliated voters switching parties for the 2022 election.

In 2018, against the odds, voters approved a ballot initiative creating an Independent Redistricting Commission. The nonpartisan commission was charged with gathering input from around the state and then drawing fair maps from which the Legislature would choose. But by 2020, lawmakers presented a deal voters couldn’t refuse – literally. The law was changed to take the teeth out of the initiative and the commission.

Still, thousands of voters participated in the complex and laborious redistricting process, drawing their own maps, expressing their desires and defining their communities of interest. The term evaded the Legislature, which ran largely back-slapping public meetings in tandem with the commission.

While the Legislature insists that congressional boundaries should have both an urban and rural mix, voters in rural areas disagreed. They wanted their own district, their own community of interest. Voters in the most urban and liberal area of Utah, Salt Lake County, just hoped that they wouldn’t be further divided. The past 10 years had Salt Lake carved among three congressional districts.

The commission presented lawmakers with three maps for each of the districts – congressional and legislative. At the final public meeting of the Legislature, lawmakers threw out all of the commission maps and opted for their own. Salt Lake was divided among the four congressional districts, each one reaching into rural Utah.

Voters have felt not only disenfranchised but cheated. Between February and the end of March, the GOP grew by 16,431 voters to 873,498 active voters. The number of voters who were Democrats or unaffiliated shrunk by 16,405. Why?

In Utah, the Republican primary is closed, and the voiceless minority wanted a say. The only way that was possible was to join the GOP. There have been organized efforts to get voters to switch since the 2020 election, and the numbers keep growing, but it has yet to make a difference. In 2020, moderates who switched wanted to push former Gov. Jon Huntsman over the finish line. Huntsman lost the primary challenge by about 1 percent. This year, those voters hope to push Sen. Mike Lee out.

Party-switching became a game plan.

Legislators knew this would happen, and in an effort to halt the party-hopping, they set a deadline to change parties at the end of March. Party Chair Carson Jorgensen says the deadline has helped keep out voters who don’t support the platform and want only to disrupt.

Party switching in Utah was the way voters said if you can’t beat them, join them. The Republican Legislature has instead been beating back voters for years. They didn’t need to. And yet they continue to hack away at the liberal urban population. It may assure them hegemony, but it has earned them instead animosity.

And now, it must deal with a lawsuit — League of Women Voters of Utah and Mormon Women for Ethical Government v. Utah State Legislature. That litigation seeks only to restore Proposition 4 — the original initiative — and redraw political boundaries for the 2024 election. The lawsuit focuses on another part of the Utah Constitution that says all political power is inherent in the people. The state is girding for a battle between constitutional principles – principles that surely protect the people’s right to choose their representatives.

All this is happening in a solidly Republican state that could have avoided the headache.