The Times-Independent
MOAB WEATHER

How will we know if Grand’s new districts are balanced?

The potential pitfalls and safeguards the county faces in the once-in-a-decade effort

The person leading Grand County’s efforts to create new voting districts for the county commission also sits on said county commission and is the head of the local Democratic Party, raising questions about how he will resolve any conflict of interest that arise in the once-in-10-years process now underway.

Kevin Walker

When compared to the rest of the country, Kevin Walker is not unique in his position. Few states, let alone smaller elected entities like the Grand County Commission, put independent commissions in charge of drawing voting districts. Instead, elected leaders like Walker are typically in charge.

But there are several safeguards that will ensure the broader interests of local voters are put before those of Walker, Grand’s two major political parties, and anyone else who might have a motivation to influence the shape of the finalized mapping.

One of those safeguards — perhaps the most prominent — is that the county is crowdsourcing its efforts to create the new voting districts. The second and related safeguard is that it is leaning on a nonpartisan group of researchers for consulting as it walks through the redistricting process.

The commission voted earlier this year to hire the Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group out of Tufts University as its redistricting right hand. The group describes four goals it has for itself, including building “open-source tools and resources that create public access,” partnering with civil rights groups, and pursuing “cutting-edge research” in the science and math of fair redistricting.

The research group has created a crowdsourced redistricting tool at districtr.org, where residents of any state can draw their own Congressional districts using the official 2020 Census data used for that purpose.

This map of the Moab valley depicts how many people live in each Census block, with darker shading indicating more people. Map data via Utah Legislative Redistricting Committee

Residents of Grand County can draw not just statewide districts on the site but Grand County districts as well. The county-specific portal for public input, available at grandcountyutah.net/redistricting, allows residents to submit a complete districting plan, written comments about a plan or the process itself, or a map of a community of interest in Grand County.

A community of interest is a neighborhood, community, or group of people who have common policy concerns and would benefit from being maintained in a single district. This can range from places like Grand Oasis and Castle Valley to demographic groups such as renters, low-income households, Hispanic residents, and more.

Walker said the effort of gathering public input in the redistricting process is designed specifically to reach a point of consensus across the county when a final districting plan is determined.

“The best available test for a partisan gerrymander is the ‘outlier’ or ‘distant tail of the bell curve’ test,” Walker, who is also a mathematician, said. “Grand County plans to collect a large number of possible maps (from the public and from partisan-blind computer algorithms) and then ask for public input on which ones are outliers. Our goal is to choose a map which nearly everyone agrees is not an outlier, and therefore not a partisan gerrymander.”

Partisan advantage — or lack thereof — is not the only metric the county will consider in its process of choosing new districts, according to Walker.

“We hope there will be a wide variety of non-outlier maps available, so that we can also select a map which does well on other issues, such as geography, race, income, other communities of interest, etc. We will of course be soliciting public input on these non-partisan considerations,” he said.

Ultimately, the fundamentals in Grand County are different than they are in Utah at large and other states. The small size of the county’s population center, Moab, means that the self-sorting that goes on in larger areas, where Democratic voters for example tend to collocate in urban centers while Republican voters tend to disperse across rural areas, is less prominent locally.

“The fact that Grand County’s population is not very geographically segregated makes extreme partisan gerrymanders impossible,” Walker said. “The gerrymanders we will be trying to avoid will be mild ones.”

Residents interested to create their own districting plan, defining their neighborhood to keep it from getting split up, providing written feedback, or reviewing any of the 18 submissions locals have already made can visit grandcountyutah.net/redistricting to learn more.