Will Utah’s redistricting committee be biased?

Speaker Lockhart and President Waddoups apparently did not try to stack the redistricting committee.

Yesterday, legislative leaders announced which members of the Utah legislature would serve on the redistricting committee. Let’s consider which groups are well represented on this committee and which groups are not.

Redistricting, of course, is about more than ensuring that every district has equal population. It is also an opportunity for political actors of all stripes to try to draw the lines in their favor.1

Because Republicans control a supermajority of seats in both chambers of the Utah legislature, we can expect that they will try to draw lines in a way more advantageous to the majority party. But Utah politics isn’t just about Republicans and Democrats. It’s also about conservative Republicans versus moderate Republicans. With that in mind, I was curious to see which of these Republican factions was better represented on the redistricting committee.

As it turns out, the legislature’s redistricting committee is a good sample of the legislature as a whole. Some will applaud this, others will not. But both sides might be interested in the numbers.

Following the 2011 legislative session, three groups issued report cards for Utah legislators: The Utah Taxpayers Association, Parents for Choice in Education, and the Sierra Club. (More rankings may be forthcoming; we’ll see.) I rescaled all these rankings so that 100 meant “extremely conservative” and 0 meant “extremely liberal,” then I averaged across all three rankings. These 2011 ideology scores range from 15 (Tim Cosgrove and Rebecca Chavez-Houck) to 93.3 (Eric Hutchings), with an average of 69.9 and a median of 61.3.

The table below shows the median ideology score for those on the committee compared to those not on the committee, broken down by caucus. As you can see, the differences are generally small. A difference of 0 would be very hard to achieve, so it’s actually impressive that these differences are as small as they are. The biggest difference is among Senate Republicans, where those on the committee are somewhat more moderate than those left out, but even there the difference is modest. The Senate GOP is balanced out by the Senate Democrats, though, whose committee members are somewhat to the right of those left out.

Not on the committee On the committee Difference
House GOP 82.7 81.3 -1.4
House Dems 29.5 25.3 -4.2
Senate GOP 86.9 80.9 -6.0
Senate Dems 41.7 45.9 +4.2
Everybody 81.3 79.7 -0.6

If we pool all 75 Representatives and all 29 Senators together, we find that the median ideology score of those on the committee (81.3) is almost exactly the same as the median ideology score of those left out (79.7). The difference of 0.6 points is trivial.

So what does it mean? It means that Speaker Lockhart and President Waddoups apparently did not try to stack the redistricting committee. It looks from these numbers that they made a laudable effort to ensure that the committees would be a faithful subset of the legislature as a whole. There will still be plenty of conflict about where to draw the lines, but I see little reason to fault leadership based on who they put on the committee.

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About Adam Brown

Adam Brown is an associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University and a research fellow with the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. You can learn more about him at his website.
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2 Responses to Will Utah’s redistricting committee be biased?

  1. Rick says:

    Your observations are quite interesting. One thing that I believe is worthy of mentioning, however, is that various polls show that the legislature is at least slightly more “right” than the people of the state as a whole. These days, this is quite common in political circles, as “distilling” the population down through elections often produces representatives that either more “right” or “left” than those whom they represent.

  2. Adam Brown says:

    That’s true. There’s no question that Utah’s legislature is more conservative and more Republican than the state as a whole. That’s to be expected as a result of our electoral system. Like most other states, we have single member districts, which tend to produce much larger legislative majorities than you would expect based on aggregate vote shares.

    When I say that the committee isn’t biased, I only mean that it appears to be a fairly good subset of the legislature as a whole. I don’t mean that it’s a perfect fit for the entire state. But to the extent it’s imperfect, it’s because our electoral system is imperfect–not because of anything internal to the legislature itself.

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