The Utah panel of lawmakers who designed the state’s new electoral districts made an important decision early in their process: They were not going to take into account the ethnic and racial makeup of communities as they plotted. new lines.
Federal law imposes strict guidelines on when lawmakers can use racial data when redistributing, and Utah legislative lawyers have warned that minority communities in the state have not reached a threshold for lawmakers to exploit that information, said Rep. Paul Ray, who helped lead this year’s effort.
Despite this, some fear that the electoral maps that will prevail over the next decade will have negative consequences for communities of color, potentially stifling the voices of the state’s growing minority population.
Ernie Gamonal, a member of the La Raza Utah Coalition board of directors who closely monitored the redistribution process, argues that this is because lawmakers have prioritized ownership over ownership. maintaining intact communities.
“[Lawmakers] valued their personal addresses rather than the enduring characteristics of people, ”he said.
Ray says he hopes, like Gamonal, to see more female and minority candidates elected in Utah. But it was not for the constituency committee to decide, he continued.
“Our job was to divide the state based on demographics, which I think we did a pretty good job of,” the Clearfield Republican said. “But I’m not sure it’s the Legislature’s job to mandate diversity. … Voters must choose this. And we certainly didn’t try to exclude anyone.
Although Utah is still predominantly white, it has diversified over the past decade and minorities now make up nearly a quarter of the state’s population, according to new census figures.
This increased diversity has started to show up at the local level in city councils and local school boards, says state representative Angela Romero, but people of color still occupy only a handful of the highest elected positions. from Utah.
Whites occupy more than 90% of the seats in the Utah Legislature and five of the six places in the state delegation to the United States Senate and House of Representatives.
Redistribution could play an important role in increasing diversity among elected leaders, says Romero, D-Salt Lake City.
But the recent round of congressional boundary plots has confined Salt Lake County, which is home to nearly half of the state’s Hispanic and Latino residents. The lines divide Salt Lake City and pass through part of West Valley City, the state’s first major minority-majority municipality.
Ray says lawmakers divided the county in response to population changes and, although he did not analyze racial data, noted that the map kept the ethnically diverse west side of Salt Lake City in the same district of the Congress than most of West Valley City.
For him, complaints about the segmentation of communities of color in Utah sometimes have partisan undertones and stem from concerns about the division of left-wing areas.
“I think the first mistake people make… is to assume that all minorities are Democrats, and that’s not true at all,” he said.
Arturo Morales LLan, chairman of the Utah Republican Latino Coalition, said the finalized maps were the product of a “robust process” that relied on feedback from voters in the state. No card, he said, would ever satisfy everyone.
“Not a color blind society”
Romero says the issues presented and debated in the Legislature have changed as more women and people of color are elected – but there is still plenty of room for progress.
“We have a long way to go as a state. We have a long way to go as a country when we talk about race, ”she said. “And redistribution certainly plays a huge role in that and who will be the voice of communities that have been left out of the conversations.”
For some, the feeling of being deprived of the right to vote is all the more acute since this year was supposed to be different. In 2018, voters approved an initiative to create an independent constituency committee, seeing the bipartisan group as a potential safeguard against gerrymandering.
To the dismay of many supporters of the initiative, the legislature subsequently weakened the initiative and largely ignored the work of the independent commission this year.
The independent group had gathered comments from hundreds of Utahns about their communities of interest or areas with common political priorities. However, the final Legislative Assembly maps did not appear to preserve these communities and instead separated them into different districts, potentially making it more difficult for a single representative to balance the competing needs of these different constituencies, according to the Princeton Gerrymandering Project. .
While communities of interest can form around common economic, educational or environmental goals, Romero wants the legislative redistribution committee to have also been able to take racial demographics into account when drawing the lines.
“I really feel like it’s important when you talk about communities of interest, you look at race and ethnicity,” she said. “We are not a color blind society. “
Representative Karen Kwan also said she was disappointed state lawmakers were unable to review the data, adding that the new congressional lines were crossing “through our ethnic communities” in Salt Lake County.
And while she was generally satisfied that the House cards did not divide these voters, she remained concerned about legislative boundary changes that altered the representation of some communities. Her district no longer includes some areas where she has long worked to build relationships and build trust, she said.
“I hope these kinds of changes that have happened in all of our areas… that we can make sure that our communities of color are always contacted by the representatives who will represent them then,” said the Democrat of Taylorsville. . “I hope they will not be deprived of their rights.”
Diversity in the office
Gamonal said he struggled to get people involved in this year’s redistribution. Many marginalized communities feel estranged from government processes and decision-makers, he said, and don’t think their voices will count for much.
“They don’t feel at home or at ease,” he said. “They certainly don’t feel they have a right to have a say in the process.”
This sense of distance may also extend to relations with lawmakers elected after the redistribution ends, he added.
Minority residents in many parts of Utah see no one like them in their local governments or as state legislators. Often, Gamonal said, they look to officials who share their ethnic or racial background, even though those politicians represent other parts of the state.
This may increase the leverage of the handful of lawmakers in minority states, he said, adding that Romero and other Hispanic and Latino lawmakers are “champions” for communities across the state.
“But at the end of the day, a voter has to be able to at least vote for someone they think they can approach, approach and talk to,” he said. “I don’t think these cards passed by the Legislature get there in the House or the Senate, and Congress cards certainly not.”
There are some hurdles minority candidates might face, Ray said, but he believes things like the cost of collecting signatures and running for office are the issue rather than district cards.
And Morales LLan argues that communities of color across the state have plenty of opportunities to get involved in the political process – and should do so if they’re unhappy with the new voting cards. It’s up to individuals to make their voices heard, he said.
“If we want a different outcome, get involved,” he said. “Talk to your neighbors. Take part in the process.
Morales LLan, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico, said he never imagined he would have the chance to sit down for meetings with former Governor Gary Herbert or have some personal numbers for members of the Utah Congressional delegation on his phone.
“I am not a rich person. Really, I’m just the average citizen, ”he said. “But I’m participating.”