A state commission is poised to start drawing new congressional and legislative districts for use in elections in the coming decade, with some initial but tentative signs already pointing to significant changes across the state’s political landscape.
The Independent Redistricting Commission on Thursday is scheduled to review and consider ordering possible changes to two competing sets of initial maps drawn by consultants under directions provided by the five-member panel.
The commission must draw maps with nine U.S. House districts — one more than the current eight, thanks to post-Census reapportionment — and 30 legislative districts.
The process is both important and politically contentious, because it affects influence held by various communities and interest groups as well as candidates’ chances of winning office.
The result could be new, awkward pairings of distant and disparate communities in congressional or legislative districts, while some groups could find themselves with less influence at the State Capitol if they no longer dominate legislative districts.
The starting point for the commission’s work Thursday during a meeting in Casa Grande are two sets of so-called “grid” maps, required by the Arizona Constitution but based on only two redistricting criteria: population and compactness of districts.
The grid maps significantly different in many respects from the districts used in the past five general elections.
“We’re wiping the slate clean, and we’re starting over,” commission member Linda McNulty said during an Aug. 3 meeting when the commission gave its consultants their initial marching orders for preparing the grid maps.
Besides requesting two sets of grid maps, the commission resorted to multiple coin flips so that starting-point decisions for drawing the maps would be made on a random basis and to avoid appearances of partisan intent.
With the grid maps now in hand, the commission and its consultants now must consider other required criteria. Those include protection of minorities’ voting rights, respect for yet-to-be-defined communities of interest and creation of “competitive” districts deemed winnable by candidates by either major party.
“That’s where the battle is going to start,” said Barbara Klein, president of the League of Women Voters of Arizona. The advocacy group is pressing for competitive districts.
One set of grid maps for congressional and legislative districts started the line drawing in a Phoenix suburb where the state’s densest population was found. The other set started with the state’s southeast corner — the result of two separate coin flips — to try a more rural-focused approach.
The urban starting point led to two congressional districts that each would stretch from Mexico on the south to the Arizona-Utah line in the north. Six others were either all or partially in the Phoenix area, and one was centered on Tucson.
A similar starting point for drawing legislative districts led to some rural counties — Mohave, Pinal and Yuma — being split among legislative districts more than they are now.
A rural starting point for legislative districts would newly carve up Pinal and Yavapai counties into at least three districts each, while Cochise would join Mohave and Yuma counties and the Navajo Nation in each anchoring a single rural district.
There wouldn’t be as dramatic a change with a rural starting point for drawing new congressional districts. There still would be four districts entirely in the Phoenix area, but there would be four instead of three districts that both include parts of the Phoenix area and rural territory. The Tucson area would be in one of those districts as well as the ninth district.