District division unfair to Dems

By By John Stafford and By John Stafford

By John Stafford

Salt Lake City is something of an anomaly in Utah. On the political map, it almost looks like a mistake, as if someone spilled a dash of blue paint on a red canvas. The left’s most populous stronghold in Zion voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 election. A fairly liberal city8212;according to election results, Salt Lake City voted for John Kerry while the county was won by George Bush8212;has had a long string of Democrat mayors and as the centrist county’s main population base, holds great electoral sway. However, partisan redistricting has attempted to constrict the influence of Salt Lake City, leaving many on the left feeling under-represented.

The 2nd district was created in 1980 to represent the electoral constituency of the mostly urban Salt Lake County. Obviously, many of these people would have different ideological view points than their rural counterparts in the 1st and 3rd district and should be represented accordingly. Makes sense, right?

In accordance with national trends, the two rural districts leaned heavily Republican. Meanwhile, the urban 2nd district teetered between the center left and right, seeing intense competition between Republicans and Democrats throughout the ’90s, during which the congressional seat changed party hands three times.

In response, Republicans in the Utah State Legislature set out to weaken the enclave of Utah liberalism8212;known nationally as centrism8212;and consolidate power by redrawing the district’s boundaries to include more rural counties and towns and thus more Republicans. The district grew from 250 square miles to more than 55,000 and was now 55 percent Republican, according to a 2003 study from the American Political Science Association. Republican majority leaders released a statement at the time saying that redrawing the 2nd district was “a healthy way to blend city and county interests in all three congressional districts.” Hmm, that sure is a nice way to re-brand a coup.

OK, perhaps the Augusto Pinochet connotations of that last phrase are a bit hyperbolic, especially because the plan backfired and Democrat Jim Matheson was elected anyway. Still, in America we have our own fancy word for what happened to the 2nd district: gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering is the manipulation of the redistricting process for political gain and it’s almost as old as the United States. Jeffersonian Republicans forced a bill through the Massachusetts Legislature that rearranged district lines to assure them an advantage in the upcoming elections. Patrick Henry drew Virginia’s first congressional district map with the intent of impeding John Adams’ election to congress.

What happened in Utah two centuries later is known as partisan gerrymandering and again, is no new phenomenon. The U’s Hinckley Institute of Politics Director Kirk Jowers said, “I think gerrymandering is one of our biggest nationwide problems in terms of a vibrant democracy. Gerrymandering is a problem that afflicts both parties. Whichever party is in power in the various states is abusing it now. It’s particularly acute now because of the technology. They can very literally select the voters instead of having the voters select them, and this is why you see so few contested general elections.”

Some of the effects of gerrymandering in the 2nd district have become quite apparent as of late, with Matheson’s vote against health reform. Although Matheson is listed as a Democrat, he is often at odds with his party. This is partly because of the fact that he has to represent many Republicans who were lumped into his district via partisan gerrymandering.

“I think Matheson, by his nature, is centrist,” Jowers said. “But certainly in order to represent his constituents and to continue to be reelected, he had to probably go a little more right on most issues and there are certainly some high-profile issues like cap and trade and health care where all of his popularity could really be put at risk if he went against the majority of his constituents.”

This helps explain why Matheson is quick to cite fiscal responsibility when voting against health reform, yet keeps these ideals reserved when he voted for the authorization of military force in Iraq.

“Having very objective criteria for how you design the districts could put some limits on the severe abuses,” Jowers said.

This is something that we should strive for in Utah and in America. Until then, partisan gerrymandering will continue to threaten our ideal of a true representative democracy.
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