Politics Still Play A Role In Arizona Redistricting

Arizona's Independent Redistricting Commission met on Thursday morning, one of many meetings it has held over the past few months as it tries to redraw voting districts. The commission, which was created by voters in 2000 to take the once-a-decade redrawing effort out of the hands of the state Legislature, has made the process more accessible and transparent, but the notion that it's less political is a myth.

Public testimony at a public hearing in Phoenix earlier this month echoed earlier hearings around the state. Tea Party Republicans complain of bias. Even before maps were drawn, they called for the resignation of the commission's chairwoman, and they spurred Arizona Republican Attorney General Tom Horne into investigating the commission.

"I believe that it is biased toward the progressive Democrats," Tea Party Republican Kim Allen told the panel in Phoenix.

"I came here because I think the rudder of the ship is a little bit too the left," Bill Mitchell, another Tea Partier, said at the same meeting.

Lucia Howard, a longtime Phoenix lawyer and former president of the nonpartisan public policy institute The O'Connor House, thinks it's an effort to undermine the commission's work.

"I absolutely believe that this is a campaign of intimidation that is being waged against the commission to kind of set the stage for political interference with the process," Howard says.

Like A Rubik's Cube

The process was created by Arizona voters more than a decade ago. It has political balance: two Republicans and two Democrats are chosen by leaders of the Legislature. Then those four commissioners choose a fifth, the chairman — who must be a registered independent. The current commissioners unanimously chose Colleen Mathis of Tucson as chairwoman. But Mathis forgot to list her husband's occupation on her application; he's a lawyer who has worked for Democrats and Republicans.

Then, when the commission had to choose a company to gather data and draw the district maps, Mathis voted with the two Democrats and chose a company with strong ties to national Democratic candidates. That's what really got the Tea Partiers going, though Howard says the independent chairwoman is always in a no-win position.

"She gets accused of not being independent if she doesn't vote with whoever's interest is at stake," she says.

Republican Commissioner Scott Freeman stands by the decisions so far. After all, he says, the mapping company works for the commission.

"Ultimately, the commission decides which maps to approve, and the commission is to direct the mapping consultant," Freeman says.

No matter who's doing the work, coming up with new congressional and legislative districts in Arizona is a little like solving a Rubik's Cube — only, instead of matching colors on six sides, the commission has to fit together six legal criteria. Districts have to have equal population, they have to be compact, they have to respect geographic boundaries. They also have to keep communities of interest together. Because Arizona has a history of discrimination, the plan has to be approved by the Justice Department to protect minority Hispanic and Native American electoral power. Finally, the districts should be competitive, which was the reason the independent commission was established.

"Once you take all of these into consideration, you're kind of running out of what social scientists call degrees of freedom. There's not much movement that you can have in terms of making districts more competitive," says Barbara Norrander, a professor in the University of Arizona's School of Government and Public Policy.

'It's About Politics'

Whatever the final outcome, Republican commissioner Freeman says community input is a good thing.

"The one thing I really like about the commission is that it is designed to get the public much more involved," he says.

No matter how much the public is involved, Patti Noland doesn't think voters who created the independent commission will get what they wanted. Noland was in the Arizona Legislature the last time it drew district lines, 20 years ago.

"They wanted to get the politics out of the redistricting. Well, you can't get the politics out of redistricting. It's about politics," Noland says.

And if you read the law creating the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, it doesn't say anything about being less political.

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