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State redistricting commission approves congressional, legislative maps

Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission Chair Colleen Coyle Mathis, left, and Vice Chair Scott Day Freeman laugh during discussions on Wednesday, Dec 7, 2011, in Phoenix. The commission has started considering possible changes to its draft maps of new congressional and legislative districts but hasn?t committed itself on what the final versions will look like. (AP Photo/Matt York)

The panel charged with redrawing the state’s political lines that will be used for the next decade approved final maps for both congressional and legislative districts today, after meeting for more than 15 hours in two days.

The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission approved a final congressional map that creates four Republican-leaning districts, two Democratic-leaning districts and three competitive districts.

The legislative map has 16 districts deemed safe for Republicans, 10 that are safe for Democrats and four that are considered competitive.

The vote on the congressional map divided the commission along party lines, as many of the panel’s votes have this year, with the two Democratic commissioners and the independent chairwoman voting for the map and the two Republicans voting against it.

The vote was made after making small adjustments to a map prepared by the Chairwoman Colleen Mathis for the panel’s Dec. 16 meeting.

Before the vote, Mathis explained that she felt the commission had made significant improvements to its draft congressional map, which was adopted in early October.

“I think this is a good map,” she said.

Her satisfaction was echoed by the commission’s two Democrats, who also each took a moment to summarize their thoughts on the map.

Democratic Commissioner Linda McNulty said the tally of four safe Republican districts, two safe Democratic districts and three toss-up districts, reflects the character – as well as the voter registration split – of Arizona.

“I do feel like this is a compromise-map,” McNulty said.

José Herrera, the panel’s other Democrat, also applauded the commission, in particular for the creation of a competitive congressional 9th Congressional District that includes central Phoenix and Tempe.

Since the commission began its work in March, the two Democrats have been strident about the need for as many competitive districts as possible. Mathis has also talked about the need for competitiveness, though not as often as her Democratic colleagues.

Though they were over and again outnumbered on the issue of competitiveness, the commission’s two Republicans tried to fight off efforts to focus on competitiveness throughout the process.

Commissioners Scott Freeman and Richard Stertz have repeatedly argued that, by seeking to make more competitive districts in the state, the commission was violating the state Constitution, which states that competitiveness should considered only if it is not a detriment to other constitutional requirements.

In particular, the Republican commissioners said favoring competitiveness resulted in splitting “communities of interest” that should have been kept together to comply with the constitutional criteria. In other instances, they argued that focusing on creating competitive districts meant communities with no natural ties were grouped together.

They also said the plan, in some areas, did not respect municipal and other natural boundaries and did not create compact districts, both of which are required by the Constitution.

Both Freeman and Stertz said they were highly dissatisfied with the congressional map and believe it does not meet the constitutional requirements.

“It saddens me,” Freeman said. “There was no compromise or negotiation. This was a results-oriented process.”

The vote for the legislative map was more complicated and actually required two votes. Initially, the Republicans opposed the map, while Mathis and McNulty supported it and Herrera abstained, saying he believed the commission should attempt to create another competitive district in Maricopa County.

However, when Herrera attempted to revisit a proposal he unsuccessfully advocated for on Monday, Stertz announced that he would support the map that had just been rejected if a second vote were held. After a brief break to sort out the parliamentary procedure needed to proceed, Stertz joined Mathis and McNulty in voting for the map. Freeman again voted no, as did Herrera.

After the vote, Stertz said he changed his mind in order to prevent the map from getting “worse” for Republicans by changing a district with a moderate Republican registration advantage into a competitive district.

“I wanted to stop the process, so we’ve stopped it. At least we’ve stopped it at a place where it’s not going to get even more contrived,” he said.

The maps will next be submitted to minority-rights experts the commission has contracted with to ensure proper adherence to federal minority-protection laws, as well as to county election officials who may want very minor adjustments around the edges of districts, to line up with county election precincts.

That process will likely take several days, and could result in some very minor adjustments. If the analysis determines that changes need to be made, the commission will have to again ratify the maps.

After the analysis is complete, the commission’s attorneys will have to prepare an exhaustive report to accompany the maps as they are submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice for federal approval. Preparing the submission is expected to take a couple weeks.

IRC attorney Mary O’Grady said she hopes to have the final Justice Department submission ready sometime in January.

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