SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Legislature is beginning the tricky process of redistricting.
At a news conference Wednesday, the co-chairs of the legislature's redistricting commission said they hope to get critical U.S. Census population data by next month and start holding public hearings across the state in September. The process is being fast-tracked because of delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and getting census data from the federal government.
The goal is to approve new boundaries for congress, legislature and state school board by Thanksgiving.
"We are willing and able to accomplish all that we need to do in a shorter period in time," said Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton.
Lawmakers have repeatedly faced accusations of "gerrymandering," where lines are drawn to favor one party or group. But the legislature's redistricting committee chairs said they expect to face that claim no matter what lines are drawn.
This year will be a little different. Voters approved Proposition 4 in 2018, which created an independent redistricting commission. That group is already meeting and getting input on what people want to see in boundaries that decide who represents them.
While voters want the independent redistricting commission, it is important to point out the legislature is the final say on what maps get approved.
"I hope they give us a good map," said Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield. "I also hope the public gives us good maps and we can use their maps. It makes it a lot easier."
A number of groups are watching the redistricting process and trying to get the public to pay attention to both the independent and legislative redistricting committees.
"Politicians don’t like to give up power. That’s the hardest thing they have to do. They may decide their re-election is more important," said Gigi Brandt with the League of Women Voters of Utah.
Brandt said public involvement is critical, because lawmakers will consider neighborhoods and community needs when they start to divide boundaries.
"We hope that with more people involved they will pay attention and the public pressure will be such there won’t be outright gerrymandering," she told FOX 13.
Rep. Ray and Sen. Sandall said the legislature's committee will not consider "community of interest" because it's too broad of a definition. They will consider political subdivisions like towns, cities and counties and trying to keep them intact in a boundary.
But the lawmakers said because of how Utah is with a massive population along the Wasatch Front and smaller populations in rural areas, some districts will need to be a mix of urban and rural.
"We’re not going to do wholesale changes just because we can," said Rep. Ray.
A number of organizations offer software tools to allow people to draw their own maps. Better Boundaries, which sponsored Prop. 4, is collecting people's maps to give to the committees.
The Utah Independent Redistricting Commission just launched its own map drawing software that can be accessed here. The Utah State Legislature will offer its own map software soon.
But Sen. Sandall cautioned that any map people start must be completed. They will not consider a map that only makes changes to Salt Lake City, for example, but refuses to consider boundaries in St. George, Vernal or anywhere else.