Expert: County’s current voting districts violate doctrines of one person, one vote

Software makes drawing maps easy as slicing pie

The seven members of the Grand County Change of Form of Government Study Committee might not be on the same page when it comes to election districts – some want candidates to run at-large, most want a combination of representatives from districts and at-large – but drawing district maps will be almost a cinch.

That’s the message election district map expert William Cooper shared with the committee at Friday’s meeting. That isn’t to suggest there aren’t serious issues to overcome.

Cooper in a teleconference said he looks at basic U.S. Census Bureau data and current district maps before he does anything else in order to determine how he would, if ultimately retained, draw draft boundaries. “It varies from plan to plan,” said the out-of-town consultant.

He uses census blocks, which he defined as the smallest geographic unit used by the Census Bureau for tabulation of 100 percent of the data collected from all houses, rather than a sample of houses. He uses computer software called Maptitude, which is designed for redistricting.

There are a couple of problems. One is the age of the information that would be used. “We have very old information,” he said before estimating Grand County has grown by 500 residents since the 2010 Census, which is what he or any other map expert would use. The 2020 Census results will not be available until winter and spring of 2021, well past the deadline for the committee to create a new form of government.

He estimates most of the growth over the past decade has occurred within the Moab city limits, but he also said dated census information can be off by 20 percent or more.

The overriding objective of drawing voting district maps is to protect the constitutional doctrine of one person, one vote. In Grand County, that means drawing districts with about 1,845 people each, which is a far cry from what’s happening. He said the five districts in Grand County – which mirror those for the Grand County School District – are either over- or under-populated.

District 2 is under-populated by 35 percent, districts 3-5 are over-populated by 15 percent, and District 1 is “just about perfect.” With this in mind, it is virtually impossible the current districts would remain intact should the study committee ultimately decide to have them. Population is the only element used to create a district, taking neighborhoods into consideration as well as city and town boundaries.

Cooper said the committee could stick with five districts, or have three districts with other candidates running at-large. That would put about 3,000 people in each district, with the City of Moab being home to most of the people in two of the districts and the third almost exclusively rural. No matter how it shakes out, the number of citizens in each district cannot vary by more than five percent or the districts will be out of compliance with the one person, one vote mandate.

Cooper, who worked with the Navajo Nation in its successful fight to change longtime gerrymandering in San Juan County, reminded study committee members there are only two metrics courts will look at to determine if a district is valid or not: that it complies with the Voting Rights Act and, again, falls in line with one person, one vote.

The study committee could eventually retain Cooper’s expertise should it decide the new form of government will have candidates who run by district, either entirely or in combination with candidates who would run at-large, which is what’s in play with the current form of government, with five council members running in a district and two at-large.

Thanks to Maptitude, Cooper could conceivably draw up maps in a matter of minutes – once and if the study committee agrees on a plan.