districting presentation

Logan Municipal Council members discuss the benefits and deficits of voting system changes in their Feb. 16 meeting in this screenshot from the video conference.

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The discussion of whether to keep municipal elections via at-large voting or a change to district-based seats continues for the Logan Municipal Council, but according to North Logan Mayor Damon Cann, that’s a good thing.

“If you are looking at the issue right now, and think, ‘Oh, this is an easy one, we should definitely do X,’ then I don’t think you’ve thought about the issue as much as I think you should,” he said to the council at a presentation on Tuesday. “If you feel a little bit of uncertainty, then that’s probably a healthy place to be looking at this, because it really is, genuinely, a difficult, complex and multifaceted issue.”

A committee of neighborhood council members heard the presentation from Cann — who is also a professor of political science and the interim-department head over journalism and communication at Utah State University — in the summer of 2020 before the committee suggested a change to by-district voting or a hybrid system with some seats selected through districts and some elected at large, 5-1.

When the council received the committee report, several council members requested more information on the pros and cons of a change and asked Cann to give the same presentation to the council — and the general public — during a meeting.

“There are good and compelling reasons to look at districts,” he said. “There are good and compelling reasons to stay at-large, in my opinion. And that’s not to say anything about the hybrid option in between. It’s a tough choice; it’s a significant choice.”

PROS AND CONS

The committee recommended districts as a way to bring more diversity to the council and ensure representation for the west side of the city, and Cann said there would definitely be more geographical representation under the district-based system.

“Geographic-represented district elections are really good at encouraging geographic representation,” Cann said, “because someone’s ability to get elected — and then to be reelected, if they are interested in that — hinges on keeping constituents not from the entire community happy but keeping constituents from their specific area of a community happy.”

The larger a city can get, the harder for constituents to feel represented, according to Cann. Melissa Dahle, chair of the Woodruff Neighborhood Council, was not on the voting district committee, but said those concerns are already being felt by those living west of Main Street in Logan.

“You can’t truly get a feeling for the neighborhood unless you actually live in a neighborhood,” she told The Herald Journal. “And so I like the idea of the districts and the fact that you’re getting people that represent the neighborhoods, that are familiar with those that live there and know what’s actually happening.”

But geographic ties can sometimes backfire, Cann said, because officials can feel more devoted to their specific constituents than the city as a whole.

Cann said district voting can increase competition in elections because there can be direct challengers to the district seat — which is also the reason why Logan Mayor Holly Daines and City Attorney Kymber Housley previously told The Herald Journal they were opposed to such a change, as it could increase contentious elections.

Increasing voter turnout was another reason the committee recommended the shift to districting, because voter participation has been historically lower on the west side.

While Cann said there is no scientific evidence a district-based system would increase participation over an at-large system, he wrote to The Herald Journal, “When you have several candidates expressing different views and the election is expected to be close, people feel like their vote could make a difference and they tend to come out.”

Instead, Cann said neighborhood councils and advisory boards, like the one Dahle represents, are a great way to increase participation.

“I think this is a fantastic concept. Because one of the things that increases voter participation is a development of skills for civic engagement. And so across the socioeconomic spectrum, across race, these kinds of things, if you can help people build the skills that they need for civic engagement, they will be more likely to participate.”

Getting more diverse council members to better reflect the city’s communities was another reason the committee recommended districts.

Currently, the only member on the Municipal Council who lives on the west side of the city is Ernesto Lopez — who is also the first Latinx representative on the council.

When districts are arranged to contain minorities in the community, geographically tied elections will boost representation of said populations, but women tend to be elected more in at-large systems (although Cann said it wasn’t by a huge margin).

Gerrymandering will always be a concern with district-based systems, as well.

“No matter what you do, whoever is drawing the boundaries will be accused of having drawn them with a particular political outcome in mind,” Cann said.

Independent districting commissions can help, he said, but they won’t completely erase the concern.

“There have been allegations of the school board drawing boundaries in Cache County for their own political gain because they’re drawing their own districts,” Cann said. “Certainly those allegations circulate every 10 years when the state legislature has redrawn their own districts.”

Though he wouldn’t weigh in on what option he felt was best for the city, Cann commended the districting committee and council for spending so much time and effort on the conversation.

“If everyone had figured out that there was a single best way to do it for every city, then every city would already be doing it that single best way,” Cann said.

In its coming meetings, the council plans to re-examine the issue along with new considerations, such was what constituents are looking for and what cities of similar size have implemented.

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