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Commission returns to work on mapping political districts

The stormy legal battle over the removal – then the reinstatement – of Independent Redistricting Commission Chairwoman Colleen Mathis has dominated the coverage of the group over the past month. But the commission is more than just high drama and analysis of the political fallout.

The group will be meeting again beginning Tuesday, and judging by a statement from Mathis and their posted agendas, the panel will quickly get back to its job of mapping Arizona’s political districts. The commission’s 30-day review period of draft maps approved in early October ended during the Mathis brouhaha, so the commission can immediately begin altering the draft maps as they progress toward final maps.

Shortly after she was reinstated to her post by the Arizona Supreme Court, Mathis said in a statement that she hopes to begin adjusting the draft maps so they can be submitted for Justice Department approval by Christmas. That gives the group about four weeks to dig through more than 10,000 pages of recorded public input, suggested maps and a report from a legislative redistricting review committee. (That report was compiled only by Republicans, as the Democratic lawmakers appointed to the committee boycotted it.) Then the IRC needs to figure out how to incorporate all of that feedback into final maps.

The group’s agendas for the next few meetings suggest some long and frequent working sessions with the maps, but there’s slim chance that everyone will walk away from the final product with a smile. Republican commissioner Scott Freeman said he hopes the commission can accomplish its task, but he’s skeptical about how things will go moving forward. “I think there are serious legal issues that have been raised about the maps,” he told me, “and those need to be addressed.”

Freeman’s concern about satisfying constitutional requirements echoes language used by the Republican congressmen and legislators who led the charge to oust Mathis, though some Republicans have also complained because the draft maps leave two Republican congressmen to fight over one district. Freeman said he thinks the group may need to “go back a few steps, before moving forward.”

If there ends up being deadlock between how the commission’s two Republicans and two Democrats want to proceed, it will put Mathis back in the position of having to cast the deciding vote – which is precisely what got her on the bad side of Republicans as early as May, when she sided with the panel’s Democrats over which attorneys to hire.

One way to avoid that would be somehow getting bi-partisan agreement on mapping decisions, but the likelihood of that happening appears slim and any speculation about how that would be possible would be little more than guesswork.

Freeman didn’t want to tell me whether he supported Mathis’ removal or not, but he said he thinks closing in on final maps will take more consensus, and he said that will be most of all a test of Mathis’ leadership abilities.

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