Opportunities—and, sometimes, dramatic shifts in behavior—stem from hitting rock bottom. Utah’s Democratic Party is packed with members who see their lots just that way—that the party can’t get any worse than it is. In the 2010 election, Utah Democrats reached a new low. Their total of 24 seats in the House and Senate of the Utah Legislature “bested” their other worst performance of the decade, back in 2002, when Democrats had to adapt to the newly redrawn boundaries that the Republican majority had gerrymandered in its favor. Even then, Democrats managed to eke out 26 seats in the Legislature.
A decade later, with redistricting again looming, many Democrats possess a strange hopefulness that they are at rock bottom, that the party will awaken to bluer skies and a new and invigorated strategy.
There’s a struggle in the party, however, over how to accomplish that strategy, and an insurgent progressive wing of the party is hoping to make some changes. Some focus on reconnecting Utah voters with core Democratic values like fair wages and affordable health care, while others argue that appealing to those Utahns who already vote—who are heavily conservative—is exactly what put Democrats in the gutter in the first place. Rather than convincing conservatives and swing voters to change parties, insurgent Democrats want the party to focus on changing minds about voting among the young and poor.
“Barack Obama carried this county by nearly 500 votes,” says Robert Comstock, a progressive candidate for state Democratic Party chair. “Then why is it that Republicans out-represent the Democrats 8 to 1 in [their respective] county conventions? Where are those Democrats who voted for Obama? They’re not involved because they have not been recruited; they have not been made to feel welcome.”
Behind the scenes, however, is the one trick Republicans still have up their sleeves to push the Democrats right through the rock bottom to their molten lava core, or at very least, to keep the minority party on its knees: redistricting.
It’s déja vu for University of Utah political science professor Tim Chambless. At a November screening of the documentary Gerrymandering at the Salt Lake City Main Library, he told the crowd, “Ten years ago, when we were going through this [redistricting] process, I asked legislators to come speak to my … class. I had half a dozen Democrats who were very willing to come to my class. I couldn’t get a Republican from the majority party to come to speak to my class. I finally got [former Rep. Ron Bigelow] from West Valley City … [who] quite candidly said, ‘It’s a messy process. It’s about politics. It’s about power, and frankly, we’d like to hold on to power. So, we’ll draw the districts in such a way to maintain power.’”
The pejorative term “gerrymandering” refers to redrawing district boundaries with an eye to benefiting one party or candidate and hurting another—the most impactful way to cheat legally in American politics. After 2001’s redistricting, even the conservative editorial board at The Wall Street Journal flogged the Republican-controlled Utah Legislature for its flagrant gerrymandering.
It’s been more than three decades since the Democrats controlled either chamber of the Legislature. They also have failed to remove the Republicans’ super-majority. Still limping after an abysmal 2010 election, the most high-profile Democrats in Utah, however, don’t have strategies specific to overcoming what they expect to come from redistricting, aside from basic advice like, “Don’t let the opponent frame the debate.” But there’s an odd optimism springing from Democrats who have almost nothing to lose. “I don’t know that [Republicans] can do more damage than they’ve done in the past in redistricting,” says former Rep. Neil Hansen, D-Ogden, who lost his seat in 2010. “It can get worse, but the people of Utah, should they study the issues, could come to realize that Democrats are not the evil of this state—then, we can win.”
Gerrymandering took its name from a 19th-century Massachusetts governor, Elbridge Gerry, whose redrawn district boundaries were said to have created one district so contorted that it was shaped like a salamander (Gerry salamander = gerrymander). Some use the term to describe federally required “majority minority” districts that protect racial minorities from having their communities spliced into multiple pieces, which happened frequently prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Other requirements, like grouping “communities of interest” into just one district, however, are more flexible and subject to less stringent oversight.
It may be difficult to see how drawing district boundaries can be so powerful, but imagine if one football team—the one that was winning—had the privilege of choosing its opponent’s end zone after each quarter. The team that’s losing might be 5 yards from scoring a touchdown as the quarter mark passes, and then suddenly find its end zone has moved 95 yards behind them.
Though no less impactful than moving a football end zone, gerrymandering is considerably more complicated and, by virtue of its complexity, also much sneakier. Instead of two end zones, Utah has 75 state House districts, 29 for the state Senate, and four congressional districts that a committee of lawmakers—appointed almost exclusively by the majority Republicans—will redraw.
Several public meetings are scheduled for the summer throughout Utah. Legislators have promised a Website where citizens will be able to draw their own redistricting map if they want to submit suggestions. (The meeting schedule and more redistricting committee information can be found at http://le.utah.gov/asp/interim/Commit.asp?Year=2011&Com=SPERDT )
Districts can be manipulated quite precisely to shift the balance of voters who usually weigh in at 55 percent Democrat to one that is only 49 percent Democrat. Sometimes, Democrats can be shifted into a neighboring district that normally votes 60 percent Republican, so while Democrats might have been losing one district 60 to 40 and winning the other district 55 to 45, after redistricting, they might lose both districts by 54 to 46 and 51 to 49. The full power of gerrymandering can be realized by expanding that concept to more than 100 districts that fit like jigsaw puzzle pieces across a map of Utah.