Chris Peterson for Governor
Voting Issues in Utah
Utah: Utah Republicans have quickly passed a bill out of the legislature that could effectively gut the redistricting reform ballot initiative that voters passed in 2018. Most Democrats voted for the bill after extracting certain concessions from Republicans to stop them from completely repealing the bill, but it remains in doubt whether these concessions will actually prevent the GOP from gerrymandering again after the 2020 census.
The ballot initiative in question created a bipartisan advisory redistricting commission to recommend maps to the legislature drawn based on nonpartisan criteria. While the legislature could reject the commission's maps and draw their own, they'd still legally be bound by the same criteria. The original measure had legislative leaders from both parties each picking three members and the governor naming a seventh member as chair, and it would take five votes to recommend a map.
While this system would let Republicans appoint a majority thanks to their hold on the governor's office, it would take the vote of at least one of the Democratic appointees to pass a map. If the GOP-dominated legislature doesn't like what the commission proposes, it could pass its own maps, but it would still be constrained by the criteria described below, which could be enforced in state court.
In order of priority, those criteria are: following federal law and the Voting Rights Act; minimizing the number of divided municipalities; minimizing the number of divided counties; promoting compactness; ensuring transportation connections exist within districts; preserving neighborhoods and communities of interest; following natural geography; and nesting districts so that state Senate and state House borders overlap as much as possible. Most importantly, it bans unduly favoring or disfavoring any particular party or candidate intentionally and must be relatively "symmetrical" between the parties.
By contrast, the GOP's bill would let the commission recommend maps with a simple majority if they can’t obtain five votes, meaning Republicans would not need any Democratic support to approve a map. The partisan symmetry requirement would also be eliminated, and the commission would have greater flexibility to define the remaining criteria. Most importantly, the bill repeals the ability of voters to seek injunctive relief in court if the lawmakers pass a map that does not comply with the nonpartisan standards described above.
As such, this effectively invites GOP gerrymandering. Utah only lets voters initiate statutes instead of constitutional amendments, and with supermajority control, there was always the threat that Republicans could simply repeal the commission outright. While an outright repeal has not come to pass, it appears that this legislation is likely to neuter the commission.
• Utah: Utah Republicans are planning to introduce legislation that would effectively gut the ballot initiative that voters passed in 2018 to create a bipartisan advisory commission that would draw maps based on nonpartisan criteria. The new bill as described by UtahPolicy.com would alter the voter-approved statute so substantially that it would guarantee Republicans can gerrymander again after the 2020 census.
The original measure established a seven-member bipartisan advisory commission, with legislative leaders from both parties each picking three members and the governor naming a seventh member as chair. While this system lets Republicans appoint a majority thanks to their hold on the governor's office, it takes the vote of at least one of the Democratic appointees to pass a map. If the GOP-dominated legislature doesn't like what the commission proposes, it can pass its own maps, but it would still be constrained by the criteria described below, which could be enforced in state court.
In order of priority, those criteria are: following federal law and the Voting Rights Act; minimizing the number of divided municipalities; minimizing the number of divided counties; promoting compactness; ensuring transportation connections exist within districts; preserving neighborhoods and communities of interest; following natural geography; and nesting districts so that state Senate and state House borders overlap as much as possible. Most importantly, it bans unduly favoring or disfavoring any particular party or candidate intentionally.
The 2018 law also requires assessing whether a particular map is "symmetrical" in its partisanship. This principle requires that if one party wins an outsized majority of seats while winning a certain majority of the vote, the other party would too if the roles were reversed. It does not require the two parties to receive seats in exact proportion to their vote share. By way of example, rather, if one party wins roughly 55% of the vote and 60% of all seats, the other party also has to be able to win roughly 60% of all seats if it wins 55% of the vote rather than a minority of seats, like it might under a gerrymander.
However, the GOP's bill would eliminate most of those protections. The partisan symmetry requirement would be repealed, and the commission could decide to use whatever criteria it wants rather than those described above (so long as they don't conflict with federal law). Republicans would also end the ability of Utah residents to file a lawsuit against the map in state court for failing to follow the criteria, since there would no longer be any statutory criteria to begin with.
These changes would hobble the commission, but the killing blow would remove the requirement for bipartisan passage to recommend a map to the legislature. The GOP's bill would change who appoints the commissioners and instead let the governor, state House speaker, Senate president, and minority leaders in both chambers each appoint one member of their choosing.
The House speaker and Senate president would also each get to appoint one additional member who has nominally not been affiliated with any party in the previous two years. That would, in theory, create a commission with three Republicans, two Democrats, and two independents, but those independents would likely be independent in name only.
And crucially, there would no longer be a requirement for five votes to pass a map, meaning members appointed solely by Republicans could approve new maps without any Democratic support. Since the legislature is already heavily gerrymandered to favor Republicans and Utah is a deep-red state, this would create a vicious cycle that effectively locks in GOP control for the foreseeable future, even if Democrats one day won the governor's office.
Because Utah doesn't let voters put constitutional amendments on the ballot, the 2018 initiative was only statutory in nature. It was therefore always at risk of repeal by the GOP unless the fear of public backlash could deter them. But Republicans may be able to insulate themselves from that possibility, too: Reportedly, they think they'll be able to pass their bill with a two-thirds supermajority, which would bar voters from putting a referendum on the ballot to veto the GOP's law.
• Utah: Utah's heavily Republican state House has unanimously voted to pass a bill enacting several election law changes, the most notable of which would formalize universal voting by mail and make Utah one of a growing number of Western states to switch entirely to mail voting as a default. The GOP-dominated state Senate has also advanced the bill in committee. Lawmakers are in fact playing catch-up here: They'd already given local election officials the power to switch to all-mail voting, and every county had already decided to adopt the system ahead of the 2020 elections.
The bill also standardizes the registration deadline for voters using various methods to register such as doing so in-person, online, or by mail, setting an 11-day deadline. Utah also allows voters to register in-person on Election Day at the same time they cast their ballot if they aren't already registered.
Meanwhile, a House committee has passed a bill with bipartisan support to repeal that state's straight-ticket voting option, which lets voters mark a single box to vote for all candidates down the ballot who are affiliated with a party. Proponents of the repeal bill, which is sponsored by a Democrat, have argued that the change would make voters more thoughtful about their choices.
Nevertheless, in an era of historic partisan polarization, repealing the option is unlikely to significantly increase split-ticket voting. Instead, academic research on straight-ticket repeal in North Carolina found that it increased voting lines because it takes longer to fill out the ballot. That in turn likely deterred some people from voting and had a disproportionate effect on black voters because they vote straight tickets more often.
Because Utah largely votes by mail, long voting lines are far less of a concern than in other states, though the absence of the straight-ticket option could increase the rate of undervoting in races further down the ballot.