Heavily Republican Utah gets 4th House seat

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Heavily Republican Utah picked up a fourth congressional seat Tuesday, ending a decade of frustration for state leaders who believe Utah was cheated out of an additional seat when thousands of overseas Mormon missionaries weren’t counted in the 2000 Census.That distribution affects a state’s influence in presidential elections through the Electoral College and also the sway it holds on any number of other federal issues.The seat in 2000 went instead to North Carolina, which was able to elect a 13th U.S. representative with an advantage over Utah of only 856 people.Utah officials – including recently inducted state Supreme Court Justice Tom Lee – argued unsuccessfully that the government should have counted more than 11,000 Mormon missionaries living overseas, as federal employees and military personnel are.North Carolina is home to several large military bases, including Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune, that Utah officials say put North Carolina over the top in 2000.Frustration over the 2000 count nearly led to the temporary expansion of Congress in a deal that would have granted the Democratic-leaning District of Columbia its first voting member in exchange for what almost assuredly would have been a Republican Utah seat.Utah’s Legislature even went so far as to draw up new Congressional maps with four seats in anticipation that the measure might pass.But in the end, patience among Utah’s congressional leaders and fears that giving D.C. a fourth seat was unconstitutional won the day.Now, Utah lawmakers will be asked to return to the drawing board again.Utah legislators will get detailed Census data in early 2011 to help them divvy up legislative districts, with a goal of having each district’s population as close as possible to the other’s. But there is no requirement that districts be geographically compact, which frequently results in gerrymandering – a process used to make it more difficult for political opponents to get elected.While some states give independent commissions power to draw legislative boundaries, Utah is not among them. A citizen’s initiative that would have created an independent redistricting commission failed to gather enough signatures to be placed on the 2010 ballot.Utah lawmakers already have floated two generic mapping possibilities. One proposal would call for slicing up the state like pie, with Salt Lake County as its center. The other option, called the doughnut, would allow Democratic-leaning Salt Lake County to essentially be its own district.That was the map lawmakers approved when the option of getting a fourth seat ahead of the Census was still a possibility.After the 2000 Census, Republican lawmakers redrew congressional districts to make it easier to defeat Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, turning what had been a Salt Lake County-centric district into one that sprawls from Salt Lake City to the borders of Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona and Nevada.Matheson, who won a sixth term in November by about 5 percentage points, has called on Republican Utah Gov. Gary Herbert to issue an executive order creating an independent redistricting commission to advise the Legislature.That’s what Matheson’s father – Democratic Gov. Scott Matheson – did in 1981. That commission consisted of four Republicans and three Democrats who were not allowed to be elected officials, although its recommendations were largely ignored by the GOP-controlled Legislature.Herbert’s office has said he respects lawmakers’ constitutional role to draw district lines.

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