PHOENIX (AP) — The state redistricting commission got a dose of political reality Monday when it was told that federal officials’ assessment of whether new maps protect minorities’ voting rights effectively trumps other criteria spelled out in the Arizona Constitution.
A former Justice Department official now advising the Arizona commission said the state’s congressional and legislative district maps will face vigorous reviews by that agency for compliance with the Voting Rights Act, a 46-year-old federal law that protects minorities’ voting rights.
And if the maps are found wanting, “you’re talking about no preclearance, no elections,” Bruce Adelson, a former senior Justice Department lawyer, said during a commission meeting in Tucson. He’s now a voting-rights compliance consultant to the Arizona commission’s mapping consultants.
Adelson said the federal mandate on voting rights are paramount, effectively subordinating Arizona’s other redistricting criteria, such as fostering inter-party competition and respecting as-yet-undefined “communities of interest.”
“Your state considerations to redistrict are your state considerations,” Adelson said. “The law is the law.”
Now in the early stages of drawing new congressional and legislative maps for use in elections in the coming decade, the commission has begun directing its consultants to explore “what-if” options for drawing lines under varying scenarios.
Created as a result of a 2000 ballot measure to take redistricting out of the hands of the Legislature, the first Arizona redistricting commission learned the importance of Voting Rights Act compliance the hard way. It had to redraw several legislative districts to satisfy Justice Department objections.
Adelson said Voting Rights Act compliance requires Arizona to still have two congressional districts and nine legislative districts in which minority voters are deemed plentiful enough to elect candidates of their choice, typically by having majorities consisting of minority voters.
Otherwise, Arizona would have “retrogression” prohibited under the Voting Rights Act, Adelson said.
The commission briefly touched on the political stakes involved with Voting Rights Act compliance when Democratic Commissioner Jose Herrera raised the subject of “packing.” That’s a redistricting tactic that involves concentrating minority voters in relatively few districts so that remaining districts have fewer Democratic-leaning voters, benefiting Republicans.
Adelson said the state runs the risk of running afoul of one section of the Voting Rights Act if it creates districts without high enough percentages of voting-age minorities to avoid “retrogression” from current districts’ levels.
But “packing” districts with huge majorities of minorities could be a violation of a different section of the law, he said. “You don’t have a lot of margin of error.”
In another development, the commission debated whether to require its mapping consultants to record and disclose their contacts with the public on mapping issues outside of commission hearings and meetings.
Republican Commissioner Richard Stertz notes controversy surrounding the selection of Strategic Telemetry as the mapping consultants. Public concern could be allayed if contacts with the Washington-based firm with Democratic political ties are logged and disclosed to provide transparency, Stertz said.
A proposed amendment to the commission’s contract with Strategic Telemetry to require disclosure of contacts was temporarily set aside after the panel’s two Democratic members proposed changing it to exclude contacts from the media and bloggers from the requirement.
Excluding bloggers creates an exception that would be big enough to drive a “Mack truck through,” Stertz objected.
In deciding to put the issue aside temporarily, commissioners said they want more research on whether and how public bodies regulate media contacts and if there are any court rulings on related First Amendment issues.
The commission on Monday voted 4-0, with the fifth member abstaining, to reaffirm its contract with Strategic Telemetry.
At least one of the Republican members had questioned whether the commission’s executive director was authorized to execute the contract that he negotiated with the firm at the commission’s direction.
“It would help if we put this issue to bed,” Republican Commission Scott Freeman said as he voted to reaffirm the contract.