The Gerrymandering Post – Part 2

Yesterday in Part 1, I wrote that Utah shouldn’t get its hopes up for an additional House of Representatives seat after the 2020 Census. After completing some additional number crunching this morning, I have confirmed that to be true, with Utah’s projected 2020 population appearing about 200,000 citizens short of making the cut for a fifth congressional district. So unless Utah’s growth rate dramatically increases because California falls into the ocean, we will probably be stuck at four Representatives until 2032.

At the end of yesterday’s post, I teased a bit what this post was going to be about, which is what I view as the major criticism of the gerrymandering argument, at least as it applies to Utah. The argument by many “anti-gerrymandering” types is that the Democratic Party is vastly underrepresented by our elected officials, both at the federal and state levels. This post will focus primarily on the federal offices, primarily Utah’s four congressional districts, and I hope to illustrate that gerrymandering should be the much lower on the priority scale.

Using basic voter registration data, this is how the 1.5 million voters in the state of Utah indicate their party affiliation, as of April 12, 2017:

Party Registration Total % of total
Republican      714,915 46.65%
Unaffiliated      599,798 39.14%
Democratic      175,072 11.42%
Independent American         23,860 1.56%
Libertarian         13,294 0.87%
Constitution           5,534 0.36%
Total Active & Inactive Voters   1,532,473 100.00%

I present these numbers to argue against the first point that many people complaining about gerrymandering seem to make. The argument is this:

Utah’s congressional districts have to be gerrymandered because half of the population (meaning Democrats) don’t have an opportunity to get equal representation at the federal level. The congressional districts are drawn in such a way to silence the voice of the minority party and prevent them from having representation!

I look at those numbers and I don’t see half of the registered voters listed as Democrats. The bulk of voters in this state are registered as Republicans, which in and of itself is not terribly surprising in this”deep red” state. The next largest group are those registered as unaffiliated, followed distantly by Democrats. The remaining 50,000 voters are registered members of the eligible third parties registered in Utah.

For most matters, party registration doesn’t matter. There are a lot of people that remain unaffiliated but vote for one of the particular parties every election. Party registration only truly matters when a voter wants to do something that is exclusive to a member of a political party. For example, during the 2016 election cycle, Utah had a presidential caucus instead of a primary, and only registered members of the particular party would have their votes counted for their chosen candidate, with unaffiliated voters unable to vote in the caucus that determined who received delegates at the national convention.*

*Utah Republicans voted for Ted Cruz, while the Democrats selected Bernie Sanders, both by overwhelming majorities. Don’t blame us America!)

An unaffiliated voter, however, could vote in primaries back when we had them, choosing one party to vote for but not both. Those voters registered to a particular party could only vote in those primaries. It is for this reason that many voters in the middle of the political spectrum choose to remain unaffiliated. They don’t particularly care enough to get involved in local party conventions, but wanted the flexibility to vote in either primary if the choices suited them. The only reason we had a caucus in 2016 was because the legislature wouldn’t fund a primary, but that might be the topic for another post.

So back to that gerrymander argument about “half” of the voters not being represented. That statement is assuming that a majority of unaffiliated voters in the state are actually secretly Democrats that for whatever reason want to remain unaffiliated. That would be quite a leap, especially considering that Republicans make up about three quarters of the registered voters excluding the nearly 600,000 unaffiliated voters! This is not to say that 77% of unaffiliated voters in the state are simply unregistered Republicans; I would just be willing to estimate that the ratio of Republicans to Democrats among those 600,000 unaffiliated voters is probably closer to 60/40.

All of this brings me to my first point to those constantly yelling about gerrymandering, or at least claiming that our districts aren’t reflective of the citizens: Before making that argument, maybe the effort should be focused on having some of those unaffiliated “Democrats” actually register as Democrats! You’re argument would be much more convincing if you could actually say that a large minority of the people – say 40% – were actually in the minority party and not simply unaffiliated. Based on current registration, I would say that Utah is lucky that we nominally have a “competitive” congressional district – CD-4, currently represented by Mia Love. A state that has FOUR TIMES as many registered Republicans than Democrats probably deserves to be represented by four Republicans.

Instead of forming groups to combat gerrymandering and considering lawsuits to redraw district lines, maybe get your hands on some registration lists and reach out to those active voters to see if you can convince them to be registered Democrats. As that number continues to grow, and we can actually see where the bulk of Democrats live (more on this in a second) and be prepared when it comes time to redraw the lines after the next census, even if we aren’t getting another Representative.

Another argument that is often made regarding gerrymandering in the state is that Salt Lake City (County) and Summit County – “liberal islands” in a vast sea of red – are currently divided among the four Congressional districts, and that if we could somehow draw lines to keep those together, we’d have districts more representative of the electorate. This “reverse gerrymandering” would do exactly what many are complaining about now, making a district specifically to elect a Democrat, or at least make that Democrat have a better chance. Furthermore, with a third of all registered voters in the state, Salt Lake County has to be divided in order to have four congressional districts of equal size.

Unless the population growth in Utah happens predominately in non-Salt Lake County counties, Salt Lake County will have to be part of at least two districts, if not three. The math just doesn’t work. While current projections have other counties growing at a faster rate, Salt Lake County will remain the largest county by population for the immediate future.

I could probably keep going, even write another post about another gerrymandering argument – rural vs. urban counties – but I’ll stop here. The main point of all of this is that before anyone should really tackle district lines and gerrymandering, they should focus on getting a better representation of the minority party in the state by identifying Democrats among the unaffiliated voters. Failing that, efforts and resources should be focused on CD-4, which is currently drawn as the “competitive” district in the state (…At least currently. As Utah County continues to grow, it could get more “red”, and it doesn’t really have a whole lot of more “liberal” Salt Lake County).

Until next time…

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