Utah Redistricting: Avoid controversy with a statewide plan for House seats

by Dean Searcy // Published May 25, 2011

Utah's state legislature has been engaged in redistricting. In its deliberation over plans for state legislative seats, a proposal to use proportional voting in Utah drew major news coverage and support from state legislators. Here's a discussion of how proportional voting makes sense for U.S. House elections.

Following the most recent census, Utah will gain another Congressional seat. This addition brings Utah's U.S. House representatives to a total of four. The addition of a fourth seat has thrown the state legislature into partisan conflicts because the strong Republican state legislature is seeking to dismantle the more liberal concentration in the second district by cutting it up into three pieces. Senate President Michael Waddoups wants to draw lines north to south instead of focusing on compactness, leaving Democrats concerned the new plan will divide their county into three parts and weaken their meager Democratic base and reduce the chances. of Democrat Jim Matheson holding his seat in 2012. Clearly, partisanship is an issue.

Utah's map drawn after the 2000 census is below.








As products of a process conducted only every 10 years, these lines haven't changed in a decade despite massive population shifts within Utah itself (especially into the first and second House districts). In some areas, population grew by 25%, while in other areas it grew by less than 5%. The inability for representation to update in real-time is an inherent flaw in the single-member-district system. Combined with the obvious gerrymandering, population shifts distort representation and discourage turnout within a solid Republican state. Simply put, being a Democrat in Utah can mean your vote doesn't count, although Jim Matheson has bucked national trends to keep his seat.

Is there a way to circumnavigate partisan gerrymandering and ensure our democracy works by counting every vote equal, despite the location of voters? Yes. Many problems created by the current system (such as gerrymandering,  discouraged voters, and an iron-clad two-party system) can be solved by turning all of Utah into a four-seat super district, utilizing a proportional voting system such as choice voting or cumulative voting. The map of the super-district would look as follows.









If Utah was to be transformed into a single super district, the effects of gerrymandering would be eliminated because scattered support can elect a representative if votes are concentrated into a single candidate. The state as a whole would simply elect four representatives. Also, population shifts wouldn't distort representation because all votes would be equal no matter where the voter lives within the state. For example, a voter who lives in the southeast portion of the state could vote for a candidate in the northwest  portion of the state, a feat that would be impossible in a winner-take-all system.

Every vote should matter, however, and with choice voting votes for minor parties (in Utah, this includes the Democrats) aren't automatically thrown out. This is because a four-seat super district system would enable any group with just over 20% support (passing the threshold of exclusion) to elect a like-minded representative (as compared to 50%+1 in a single-member system) -- and have their ballot count for ther second choice if their candidate trails too ar behind to reach that winning threshold. Under such a system, Democrats would be guaranteed one representative, Republicans would be guaranteed two representatives, and the fourth seat would lean Republican. This would encourage every voter to turnout and exercise their right to suffrage. As Utah's population continues to evolve, groups of voters wouldn't lose power relative to other parts of Utah, unlike with the current one-seat district system.

If Utah were to be become a four-seat super district, election outcomes would be more representative of real grassroots opinion and every vote would matter. It's democracy at its finest.