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Future of gerrymandering reform bill is unknown, proponents say

State capital in Salt Lake City, Utah.

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Utah’s legislature may be looking to repeal the effects of gerrymandering reform in the state, according to proponent group Better Boundaries.

The reform bill, Proposition 4, was passed in the general election of November 2018 with a majority vote of 50.3% in favor and 49.7% against. However, proponents report it’s likely the bill is under threat of repeal.

“This is the literal definition of the fox guarding the henhouse,” said Jeff Wright, GOP co-chair of Better Boundaries. “If the Utah legislature eliminates the core principles of gerrymandering reform, they are missing the point. It’s critical we have an independent commission and a legislature that is required to follow the same ground rules as were decided statewide in 2018.”

What Prop. 4 means for gerrymandering reform

Prop. 4 created the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission, prohibiting both the commission and the Utah Legislature from engaging in partisan gerrymandering and incumbent protection.

The commission is comprised of seven members: a commission chair appointed by the governor, two Republican and two Democrat commissioners appointed by their respective parties, and two unaffiliated commissioners.

The commission states it would intend to “follow common-sense rules” to avoid gerrymandering, acting in a transparent manner. This transparency would be accomplished by allowing the public to submit drawn boundaries on maps for the commission to consider.

Proponent groups worried about possible repeal

However, the group Better Boundaries — which is a proponent of Prop. 4 — says GOP leadership is likely to reject the cores of the gerrymandering reform bill, repealing it altogether, according to a press release sent out Friday.

The group argues the proposition creates a process that keeps lawmakers accountable and strengthens democracy. Better Boundaries reports they met with lawmakers during the 2019 general session to convince them not to repeal the bill, according to the press release.

“After extended discussions over two sessions, it now appears the legislature is dead set on repeal, as they have been unwilling to accept any compromise that preserves Prop 4’s ban on partisan and incumbent-protection gerrymandering,” said Rebecca Chavez-Houck, Executive Director of Protect Better Boundaries, in a press release. “From our discussions with legislative leadership, they are insisting that the law must be changed so that the independent redistricting commission is permitted to recommend gerrymandered maps to the legislature.”

Lawmakers say amendment won’t repeal bill

The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Curtis Bramble, says the bill isn’t necessarily up for repeal. However, he said the proposition presented several provisions that are questionably constitutional.

“So, we began negotiating with Better Boundaries a little over a year ago to see if we can come to a common ground on maintaining a redistricting commission and eliminating those provisions that created constitutional concerns,” Bramble said during a public Utah Senate media meeting.

One of those concerns, Bramble said, was implementing language that doesn’t have set definitions — arguing it makes it difficult for lawmakers to defend their intentions behind supporting the bill.

“We didn’t want […] to require [the commission] to adhere to terms that don’t have a clear definition and are not quantifiable,” he said.

These terms include “gerrymandering” and “incumbent protection” — which Bramble says can’t be universally defined among lawmakers.

Under the amendments of the proposition, Bramble said the Utah Independent Redistricting Commission can choose its own standards for drawing boundaries because of its independence. However, those standards can’t be mandated in the state statute.

They said that while they aren’t set on repealing the reform bill, the option is still on the table. This is because someone could offer a substitute amendment that repeals the entire bill, which could be voted on if there isn’t a consensus, Bramble said.

“There is no repeal,” Bramble said. “We are modifying the statute for the Independent Redistricting Commission.”