San Juan County exemplifies the importance of redistricting

U.S. Democrats have paid particular attention to voting laws being developed and passed in Texas and Georgia, but as always, the most important activity is happening at the local level in counties across the nation.

The day that Democrats took the House of Representatives in 2019, their number one bill (literally, it is House Resolution 1) has been about expanding voting rights, changing campaign finance laws, limiting partisan gerrymandering, and creating new ethics rules for federal officeholders.

It might be hard for the liberally minded people of Moab to believe this, but some of the proposed voting administration rules Democrats are opposing have relatively low stakes. The more potent issues are redistricting and gerrymandering.

For example, voter ID laws does not stop voters from turning out, according to a 2019 paper out of the Harvard Business School. The paper is titled “Strict ID Laws Don’t Stop Voters: Evidence from a U.S. Nationwide Panel, 2008–2018.”

On the flip side, automatic voter registration could have a tangible effect on increasing social and ethnic representation, according to a 2016 paper also out of Harvard.

But perhaps the highest stakes in the debate over voting is what you do with people’s votes after they are cast. Where do they count? How much do they count? How are people’s votes grouped?

We see how much this matters by looking directly south of Grand County. The San Juan County Commission flipped from a 2-1 white, Republican commission to a 2-1 Navajo, Democratic commission in 2017 after a federal judge imposed new voting districts in the county. That followed a finding that the county had violated the Voting Rights Act with its old districts.

Lines on maps matter immensely. Lines on maps skew the U.S. Senate to count the votes of white people more than Hispanic, Black, and Asian people. Lines cut Grand County — one of Utah’s smallest counties — into parts, splitting our representation in the Utah House of Representatives between Rep. Carl Albrecht and Rep. Christine Watkins.

And, of course, lines today split San Juan County into equal parts that grant Navajos majority representation in a county where they are the ethnic majority.

In Grand County, our lines split people to dilute the votes of renters who live on Walnut Lane and Kane Creek Boulevard while privileging the votes of people who live on or near Mi Vida and Palisade drives. The county for years has managed to skirt lawsuits that would easily have found the districts to be illegal.

As I reported previously, this is all set to change this year. The U.S. Census Bureau will release redistricting data in August or September, and Grand County will use that data to redraw its voting districts for the first time in decades.

In all likelihood, the voting districts will have equal numbers of people, or close to it. Certainly they will be more even than the current districts are.

But, San Juan County also had equal numbers of people in each district prior to 2017. The difference is that the districts were racially gerrymandered.

The key for Moab will be ensuring that our lines group people fairly. We want to give Moab’s Hispanic population fair representation, for example. The same goes for Moab’s renters, young people, low-income households, and more.

In Grand County, your voice counts for much more than it would in Texas or Georgia. We might serve millions of people every year, but there are only about 10,000 people who call Moab home. Those are the people whose votes actually count here.

If a neighborhood like Mountain View can stop Utah from building a bypass in Moab, think about what your neighborhood can do. Think about what neighborhoods like Walnut Lane, Kane Creek, or the Virginian could do if they came together to promote housing affordability.

To make those political coalitions work together, Grand County needs voting districts that group them together. That’s what redistricting is for, and that’s what is for.

The county is taking public comments at that website from local residents. You can write written testimony; you can draw your own districting plan with 2010 data; or you can draw your neighborhood on a map to ensure it doesn’t get split up.

Neighborhoods are not the only way of grouping people. Where do Moab’s lowest earners tend to live? Where do Moab’s young people tend to live? If you have ideas, send them in to have your input considered during redistricting this fall.

Redistricting is among the most potent voting rights issue in the United States today, and San Juan County exemplifies that.

We have an opportunity in Grand County to replace our districts with something fair and representative. This is as good a time as any to make your voice heard. Go to to speak up.