Arizona is getting a new congressional seat. But who’ll draw the lines?
Long a GOP stronghold, Arizona officially achieved battleground status with the 2018 election. Following the 2020 Census, the battle is likely to intensify, as Arizona’s population growth assures the state will gain another congressional seat in 2021, increasing from nine to 10 (each seat represents approximately 747,000 people).
In American politics, the resulting redistricting – redrawing legislative district boundaries to reflect the population change – has an oft-unsavory history, in which party bosses gerrymander the districts to give one party an unfair advantage by diluting the other’s voting strength. Only five Arizona citizens stand in the way of that happening: the two Republicans, two Democrats and one independent who make up the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, the body established under a ballot measure approved by voters in 2000. The new commission will be selected in 2021. “We were one of the first states to innovate that type of reform,” says commission attorney Mary O’Grady, noting that in 37 states, state legislatures themselves draw the lines.
The previous redistricting (see graph) resulted in a fairly equal split of seats in a state that’s essentially split evenly between the parties. Will the 2021 redistricting do the same? Selected by party leadership, the four partisan commissioners then select the fifth member, whose neutrality has sometimes been challenged. In 2011, then-governor Jan Brewer accused independent Colleen Coyle Mathis of repeatedly siding with the Democrats and removed her from the commission. The U.S. Supreme Court voted unanimously to reinstate her. The Arizona Legislature wrestled to regain control of the process in 2015; this time the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to uphold the commission’s authority.
Wendy Underhill of the National Conference of State Legislatures says an accurate census count is the first step in ensuring equal representation. “Where you draw those lines matters, and can have political consequences.”
Though disputed by Republican leadership, the 2011 congressional redistricting in Arizona fulfilled its ostensible goal: biannual House elections that consistently reflect the state’s near-even split between Republican and Democrat voters.