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Better Boundaries exploring lawsuit over Utah’s new voting maps

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Better Boundaries
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Better Boundaries
Better Boundaries says it might challenge Utah's new voting maps in court.

Utah officially adopted new maps for Congress, the state legislature, and state school board last month, but the process was not without controversy.

The maps will be in place for the next 10 years, until they are redrawn after the 2030 census.

The congressional map in particular was heavily criticized by Democratic lawmakers for carving up the urban center of Salt Lake County four ways, effectively blocking Democrats from holding one of Utah’s four congressional seats for at least the next decade. Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report called the new map a “brutal gerrymander.”

Gerrymandering is when legislative boundaries are drawn in a way that deliberately advantage or disadvantage a certain group of voters.

Utah voters narrowly passed a ballot initiative in 2018 that created an independent redistricting commission that would handle the state’s redistricting process. When the state legislature threatened to intervene and repeal the proposition, Better Boundaries, which is the organization behind the initiative, negotiated a new bill that would retain the commission, but keep the power to approve new maps in the legislature.

Better Boundaries Executive Director Katie Wright told KPCW last week the organization is extremely disappointed that the legislature ignored the independent commission’s recommendations, and instead approved maps legislators drew themselves.

Now, Wright says Better Boundaries is looking into whether or not a lawsuit could be filed to challenge the maps. She says the organization will only file a suit if it believes there’s a legitimate chance of succeeding.

“We’re not interested in filing a lawsuit just to make a statement," says Wright. "We need to know that there’s an achievable path. If we determine that that is there, and if we have the financial wherewithal to pursue it, we will pursue it.”

Utah Speaker of the House Brad Wilson, a Republican who represents Davis County, and many of his legislative colleagues claimed in statements during the redistricting process that the Utah constitution gives redistricting power to the legislature.

Wilson is right, the Utah constitution says “the legislature shall divide the state into congressional, legislative, and other districts,” but it doesn’t explicitly state what that process needs to look like.

That could open up a window for a legal challenge, and Utah wouldn’t be the first place where it has happened. Voting maps have been thrown out by state courts in North Carolina and Pennsylvania in the past for partisan gerrymandering. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that federal judges cannot rule on whether partisan gerrymandering violates the constitution.

Legal questions aside, Wright says the independent commission proved that it worked, even if none of its maps were adopted.

“So the one silver lining of this year’s process is we now have proof of concept," she says, "It is very clear that the independent commission was successful in putting aside partisan interests in not considering incumbency information, and really creating three maps for each district that centered what Utahns want, which is they want their communities kept intact when possible. We saw a model that was very successful.”

Utah Governor Spencer Cox signed the new legislative maps into law with HB2004 last month.