Governance committee vexed by districting

Group mulls how to slice the urban/rural disparity

Grand County Change of Form of Government Study Committee Member Steven Stocks looks at options for voting districts. Photo by Doug McMurdo

While political parties in other Utah counties routinely amend precinct maps based on changing demographics and other factors, neither Republicans nor Democrats in Grand County have made a single change in at least 40 years.

This is just one of the interesting facts discussed at the Friday, Aug. 2 meeting of the Grand County Change in Form of Government Study Committee during a presentation on splitting Grand County into two voting districts.

William Cooper, a nationally recognized expert in reapportionment and drafting district maps based on population, was hired to create two districts in Grand County, one strictly within the City of Moab and the other exclusively of rural Grand County after the study committee agreed in a 6-1 vote during the July 26 meeting to have a mix of three at-large seats on the five-person council/manager form of government and two of the aforementioned districts. The goal was to give voters the opportunity to vote for as many seats as possible.

Cooper and committee members did a deep dive into the process, which proved to be no more than an academic exercise due to a number of issues and flaws, the most significant being the dated data Cooper is using to draw the line.

The goal is to split Grand County into two political districts that have the same number of residents – not confined to registered voters or people of voting age, but all residents.

But Cooper is using figures compiled during the 2010 Census, which are undoubtedly inaccurate as the nation gears up for the 2020 Census. Cooper in a previous meeting said he believes Grand County has grown by about 500 people over the past decade, but exactly where that growth has occurred is debatable; leaving the committee with a guessing game nobody wanted to play. The U.S. Census Bureau pegged Grand County’s population at 9,674 in 2017, the most recent year with available data. The city’s population was estimated to be 5,253.

According to Cooper and the U.S. Census Bureau, there is comfort knowing that any maps that are ultimately approved in order to comply with form of government guidelines and the Voting Rights Act can later be amended using 2020 Census numbers that will be made available to states in March of 2021. Citizens will vote on the form of government in 2020. If it is approved, candidates will run for office in 2022, well after any adjustments would be made to district maps.

For now, however, Cooper has run into problems doing the committee’s bidding. With more people living in the city than in unincorporated Grand County, a slice of urban city, about 20 percent of Moab’s population will have to be added to the pastoral county pie in order to meet the constitutional requirement of one person, one vote.

Citing voter information supplied by the Grand County Clerk, Cooper said there are hundreds more registered voters today in rural Grand County, about 2,800, than the roughly 2,300 registered in the City of Moab despite Moab having 832 more residents – if the 2017 Census Bureau data is accurate. He cited Moab’s younger population and its Hispanic population as possible reasons. According to Cooper, Hispanics in Utah don’t typically vote at a high percentage rate and there also is a population that is unauthorized to be in the country whose members are ineligible to vote.

Cooper said there were no fewer than 48 ways to split up Grand County. He even said precincts could be split, which isn’t uncommon, but why? Clearly, the 2020 Census figures will prompt changes in 2021.

“Let’s throw the precincts out with the bathwater,” said Member Jeramy Day, who asked Cooper to ignore everything but creating one rural and one urban district.

“There’s no legal reason to be married to precincts,” said Gavin Anderson, a Salt Lake County deputy district attorney who works in that agency’s civil division and is an expert on permissible forms of government in Utah. The committee previously hired Anderson – at a cost of no more than $7,500 – to draft the optional plan once the study committee completes its business, which is scheduled to conclude by Thanksgiving.

“There might be political reasons,” he added, but he also assured committee members that precincts can be changed and split and it might be more convenient to do so down the line, but for now it would be better to ignore precincts.

“They seem like an anachronism now with mail-in voting,” said Member Walt Dabney. It was also acknowledged that there are more independent voters in Grand County than Republican or Democrat, which further erodes the need for precincts.

Regarding the idea of two distinct rural and urban districts, Cooper, after doing a few computer software machinations, said the City of Moab district would have 18 percent more people than the rural district, which would take it far out of the five percent deviation courts have found acceptable in recent reapportionment cases and the “one person, one vote” objective.

“You need to stick as close to the objective data as possible. It’s convenient that the 2020 census is coming soon,” Anderson said.

While the actual districts likely won’t be fully created until that data is made available and adjustments are made, any change will most likely be a huge improvement. Cooper at a previous meeting noted only one of Grand County’s current five districts is in compliance with the “one person, one vote” rule. District 1 is “just about perfect” he said, while the other four deviate wildly from the doctrine – three of them by as much as 35 percent. Both Grand County and the Grand County School District use those voter districts.