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Commissioners eye free mapping software, say it could be used differently than creators intended

The redistricting process in Arizona will at some point turn into a procession of motivated activists lobbying a state commission to draw political lines in a way that pleases them.

One group, which has a stated goal of increasing the number of “competitive districts,” has already gotten on a jump on the map-drafting part of that process by launching a free, online map drafting tool for the public.

Each member of Arizona’s Independent Redistricting Commission has said they are aware of the tool or had logged into the online mapping software that was released to the public recently by the Arizona Competitive Districts Coalition, in order to see how it works.

The free, public mapping project, called Redistrict Arizona, is designed to allow anyone to draw their own maps. The coalition created the tool with the hope that it would be used to create the greatest number of competitive districts, which is one of the six constitutional requirements the IRC is to use in guiding the remapping effort.

Some commissioners praised it for raising awareness of the commission’s project. Other commissioners pointed out that it could also be used by those who might want to create less competitive districts, or use a different principle in redrawing the maps altogether.

IRC Commissioner Scott Freeman, a Maricopa County Republican, watched an online demonstration of the program April 28.

Freeman said he was generally impressed by the software, and that he’s very interested in seeing how people end up using it to draw maps, which can then be presented to the commission as alternative ways to recast Arizona’s political map.

He said, however, that his “antenna went up” when a participant asked if there was a function that allows public map-creators to see where incumbents live.

“I think it was just an idle musing. I don’t think it was sinister,” Freeman said, noting that commissioners are constitutionally barred from considering where any individual lives. “If people start talking about where people live, I’m logging off.”

IRC Chairwoman Colleen Mathis, an independent, said she had briefly looked at the group’s website and mapping tool, but wouldn’t speculate on what might come of maps produced by the public.

Commissioners José Herrera, a Maricopa County Democrat, and Richard Stertz, a Pima County Republican, said they intend to investigate how the software works. Pima County Democratic Commissioner Linda McNulty said she had heard about Redistrict Arizona several weeks ago, and although she hadn’t yet logged on to look at it, she has a rough idea of what the project’s promoters are looking to achieve.

Stertz voiced caution, pointing out that the public should remember that the professional mapping consultants used by the commission will inevitably have access to deeper and more expansive data than what’s available in an online mapping application.

He also said the online mapping tool could be used by people who want to use “communities of interest” as their chief guide to remapping as opposed to focusing on creating competitive districts.

Since the online mapping tool offers a lot of detail and a coherent way to organize a suggestion for district lines, Stertz said groups that want to advocate for preserving a community of like-minded residents could use it that way, despite the possibility that mapping based on communities of interest could foil mapping for competitiveness.

Freeman said that while he understands that some interested parties will be pushing the commission to pay closer attention to the competitiveness criteria that is built into the IRC’s mission, anyone is entitled to address the commission and advocate for adherence to any of the six constitutional requirements laid out in the IRC’s defining language: Equally populated districts, minority/majority districts, compact and contiguous districts, districts respecting communities of interest, districts respecting geographic boundaries and districts promoting competitiveness, where possible.

Freeman acknowledged that most contention arises over the trade-off between competitiveness and communities of interest, but joked that if a group wants to advocate that the commission respect a higher standard for another of the IRC’s constitutional requirements — like compact districts — they could use online mapping software to do that also.

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