Topographical Error?

Written by Nick R. Martin Category: Hot Topics Issue: February 2012
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The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission draws new voting district maps – and a lot of legislative ire.

You don’t need to be a masochist to serve on the embattled Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC), but a high pain threshold might help.

Since convening last March to slice the state into “fair and equal” voting districts, the small but powerful bipartisan commission has suffered repeated whippings at the hands of state politicians, including the attempted ouster of its chairperson, Colleen Coyle Mathis. Republican lawmakers led the attacks, launching investigations and holding state Senate hearings under the rationale that the commission’s draft maps – particularly the congressional map that draws our lines of representation in Washington, D.C. – favor Democrats.

All of which has served to keep the commission on thin ice – and your vote in limbo.

Redistricting is supposed to be a basic upgrade of sorts, the latest install of our democratic operating system. Every 10 years, each state must update its voting districts to account for population shifts. The sole duty of the five-person IRC is to make a map of Arizona and split the population into nine U.S. congressional districts (Arizona gained a seat after the 2010 census) and 30 legislative districts.

While the task may sound simple enough, it’s anything but. Just ask Steven Lynn, who served as chairman of the commission during the last redistricting phase in 2001-2002. Lynn estimates he spent as many as 4,000 hours on the commission, all of it unpaid. Once his commission’s maps were finished, a wave of lawsuits swept in from groups who disputed the final results.

Lynn says there are “an infinite number of possible ways” to draw the maps, and everybody seems to have an opinion on which one is correct. “Redistricting, as a process, is a puzzle where the pieces don’t all fit,” he says.

State law dictates the maps must meet six criteria, but some of them conflict with one another. One directive asks for “competitive” voting districts. But another says districts can’t be so competitive that they split communities that often vote in blocks, like rural residents or tribal communities. This particular point has engendered much friction; after viewing the new draft maps in October, Governor Jan Brewer deemed the redrawn districts overly competitive, in a way that would neutralize large blocks of non-majority Republican voters (see map), and moved to oust the Independent-party Mathis. Democrats countered with charges of political bullying and say the competition is just as likely to disenfranchise Democratic voters. (The Arizona Supreme Court reversed the Mathis dismissal; the commission was considering proposed changes to the maps as this issue went to press.)

Even Democrats concede the system’s imperfect. “I haven’t talked to anybody who thinks that everything’s peachy,” says Steve Muratore, who runs the left-leaning Arizona Eagletarian blog. Republican lawmakers proposed giving map-drawing power back to the legislature – in effect, letting politicians hand-pick their constituents. Muratore thinks it would be a tough sell for Arizona voters, who did away with that system 12 years ago when the IRC process was invented. “The people will not return the authority to the state legislature,” he says. “If you’re looking at an ongoing choice between what we have now and what we used to have, people will not turn back.”

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Here’s how the controversial congressional draft map would affect Arizona voters.

• On the proposed map, Buckeye and Avondale would vote in Latino-dominant District 3 encompassing Yuma and south Tucson, the realm of controversial U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D). Currently, Buckeye resides in Republican-held District 2.

• Currently yoked to northwest Arizona and the river towns of the Parker Strip, the high-growth cities of Peoria, Surprise and Litchfield would anchor the newly-formed District 8, reflecting the West Valley’s growing political clout.

• Controversially, Ben Quayle’s GOP-dominant District 3 would be cleaved into non-existence between the new District 9 and strong-GOP District 6, triggering a possible Quayle showdown with fellow Republican incumbent David Schweikert.

• The GOP’s East Valley stronghold would contract geographically, losing parts of Mesa, Chandler and the San Tan Valley as the new District 5, but remain a GOP lock. Rep. Jeff Flake – currently planning a Senate campaign – ran unopposed in 2006.

• Geographical-oddity alert: Voters in Apache Junction and Florence would cast ballots alongside residents of Kingman, some 300 miles away.

• When critics talk about the draft map’s “overly competitive” districts, they’re likely referring to District 9, where Tempe liberals and Mesa/Chandler conservatives appear poised in roughly equal numbers. Sad but true: Only one block can win.