MELISSA BLOCK, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host: And I'm Robert Siegel. In Arizona today, the state's independent redistricting commission holds another in a long series of open meetings. The commission was created by voters to take the once-a-decade process of drawing districts out of the hands of the state legislature. It has made the process more accessible and transparent. But party politics still plays a role, as NPR's Ted Robbins found out.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)
BILL MITCHELL: We do have police officers, and I don't mind using them to escort people out of the room.
TED ROBBINS: Welcome to one of the Arizona independent redistricting commission's public hearings. This one was in Phoenix. But the public testimony has echoed hearings around the state.
KIM ALLEN: I believe it is biased towards the progressive Democrats.
MITCHELL: But I came hear because I think the rudder of the ship is a little bit to the left.
LYNN ST. ANGELO: Everything that I see about them is Democrat.
ROBBINS: Tea Party Republicans Kim Allen, Bill Mitchell and Lynn St. Angelo complaining of bias. Even before maps were drawn, they called for the resignation of the commission's chair, and they spurred Arizona Republican attorney general, Tom Horne, into investigating the commission. Lucia Howard thinks it's all an effort to undermine the commission's work. Howard is a longtime Phoenix lawyer and former president of the nonpartisan public policy institute the O'Connor House.
LUCIA HOWARD: I'm more than disturbed. I absolutely believe that this is a campaign of intimidation that is being waged against the commission to set the stage for kind of political interference with the process.
ROBBINS: 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 chair -who must be a registered independent. The current commissioners unanimously chose Colleen Mathis of Tucson as chair. 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 Lucia Howard says the independent chair is always in a no-win position.
HOWARD: She gets accused of not being independent if she doesn't vote with whoever's interest is at stake.
ROBBINS: Republican commissioner Scott Freeman stands by the decisions so far. After all, he says, the mapping company works for the commission.
SCOTT FREEMAN: Well, ultimately, the commission decides which maps to approve. And the commission is to direct the mapping consultant.
ROBBINS: 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 have to keep communities of interest together. Because Arizona has a history of discrimination, any plan has to be approved by the Justice Department to protect minority Hispanic and Native American electoral power. Finally, the district should be competitive, which was the reason the independent commission was established. Barbara Norrander is a professor in the University of Arizona's School of Government and Public Policy.
BARBARA NORRANDER: 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.
ROBBINS: Whatever the final outcome, Republican commissioner Scott Freeman says community input is a good thing.
FREEMAN: The one thing I really like about this commission is that it really - it is designed to get the public much more involved.
ROBBINS: 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.
PATTI NOLAND: Because they wanted to get the politics out of the redistricting. Well, you can't get the politics out of redistricting. It's about politics.
ROBBINS: And guess what? If you read the law creating the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, it doesn't say anything about being less political. Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.
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