Arizona is gearing up for the once-a-decade job of drawing new political boundaries for the state.
The Arizona version of redistricting, as the drawing of new maps of congressional and legislative districts is called, involves blowing up current districts and starting from scratch, says the Independent Redistricting Commission’s former chairman.
The work has high stakes if the tug-of-war over the maps drawn in 2001 is any measure.
Local government officials lobbied the commission to draw district boundaries that split – or didn’t divide – their communities. Native American tribes made conflicting requests on whether to put reservations in the same district. And Democrats fought a yearslong and ultimately unsuccessful court fight to force the commission to redraw the legislative map to draw additional districts winnable by both parties.
But first, the state has to chose the five new commissioners who will draw the new districts.
A judicial nominating commission on Tuesday decided to interview 40 of 77 applicants for seats on the redistricting commission. The applicants included a Northern Arizona University accounting professor, a former state Transportation Board chairman, a former campaign finance regulator and a woman who sells gift baskets.
The names of 25 applicants will go to Republican and Democratic leaders of the state House and Senate, and each leader will appoint one redistricting commission member. The four appointees then will pick the fifth member from among applicants who aren’t Democrats or Republicans.
It’s a volunteer job, with a time commitment that seemed endless because of public hearings across the state and years of legal proceedings, said Steve Lynn, a Tucson utility executive who served as the commission’s chairman during the past decade.
“I remember distinctly it was the end of my life as I knew it,” Lynn said of the day in February 2001 that he was chosen chairman.
Arizona voters approved a 2000 constitutional amendment that created the redistricting commission and took redistricting out of the hands of the Legislature. The state is among 20 states that have commissions for primary, backup or advisory redistricting roles, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The commission’s work begins in earnest when federal officials release detailed data from the 2010 U.S. Census.
Arizona is expected to pick up a 9th U.S. House seat due to population growth, and a redistricting consulting firm reported in October that uneven population growth within the state means Maricopa and Pinal counties are poised to gain additional congressional and legislative representation at the expense of the other 13 counties.
A state’s congressional districts must have equal populations and its legislative districts must be close in population. Other criteria set by Arizona’s redistricting law include protecting ethnic and racial minorities’ voting rights, respecting “communities of interest” and following geographic features and local government boundaries. Also, competitive districts are supposed to be favored when it doesn’t significantly hurt achievement of the other criteria. Also, incumbents’ and candidates’ residences can’t be considered.
“The law is very clear that we blow up the (current) map completely,” Lynn said.
The requirement for competitive districts resulted in legal challenges that ended with a May 2009 Arizona Supreme Court ruling that upheld the legislative map. That case first went to court in 2002.
It was difficult to create competitive districts because there are more Republicans than Democrats and because the commission had to concentrate Democrats in some districts to protect minorities’ voting rights, Lynn said.
Lynn urged the nominating commission to try to tailor its nomination list to avoid having three commissioners come from Maricopa County, which is home to six out of 10 Arizonans.
“My concern is that the Great State of Maricopa is going to control the commission, the commission is going to start with two of the three strikes against it, particularly in the out-counties,” he said.
The initial commission had two members from Maricopa County, two from Pima County and one from rural Apache County.