Just when it seemed like the once-a-decade redistricting process was headed toward its conclusion, a truism in Arizona politics was reaffirmed Friday: Expect the unexpected.
For months, Republicans have railed against the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, saying its members created maps based on a predetermined outcome that gives more influence to Democrats. Nonetheless, the redistricting commission adopted a final set of maps and has been preparing them for U.S. Justice Department approval.
The embers of the Republicans’ spite still glowed, but the war had mostly turned cold – so it seemed.
No one knew that Republican House Speaker Andy Tobin had been drawing his own redistricting plan behind closed doors. And just as few would have predicted that Tobin would suddenly unveil his maps Friday and announce his intention to send Arizona voters to the ballot for an $8.3 million special election in May to replace the maps drawn by the IRC.
In fact, nobody except for one House staffer who handled the technical aspects of the mapping process had any knowledge of it. Tobin kept the plan secret from even fellow Republican leader Senate President Steve Pierce and Gov. Jan Brewer – both of whom will have to facilitate Tobin’s plan if it is to move forward.
When my colleague asked how he justifies taking such actions without any public knowledge, Tobin leaned on the tried and tested political maneuver of pointing at an opponent and saying their misdeed call for one in return. He said that his secret map drawing was justified, because he and other Republicans feel that the ICR dismissed public input that benefited Republican interests. Tobin added that his maps did incorporate public input received during a special joint legislative committee on redistricting last fall, even though the public wasn’t told this would be the case at the time.
Even if Tobin’s maps win the approval of Brewer and the Legislature, then make it to the ballot for a special election and are approved by voters, the scant input, particularly from minority groups, could pose some serious problems. The U.S. Justice Department will have to approve whatever plan Arizona eventually chooses to implement, and as unhappy as Republicans have been with the redistricting commission, the IRC’s plan had been given approval by some key groups of minorities.
Native Americans from across Arizona had given their nod to the redistricting commission’s congressional map, because it put nearly all of the state’s Native Americans into one congressional district, strengthening their political voice. Tobin’s map splits them. And Hispanic groups had also expressed approval for the commission’s plans.
Winning the blessing from those legally protected groups took dialogue that occurred in the dozens of public input meetings held by the commission.
Whether or not Tobin’s maps actually make it to a ballot will depend on how his colleagues in the Legislature (as well as the governor) receive the plan and the $8.3 million price tag for a May special election. Whether Arizonans choose to replace the commission’s maps with Tobin’s will depend on how well he can sell voters on his maps. And whether the Justice Department decides to approve the speaker’s maps will depend on how DOJ officials see the protection of minority voting rights built into them, which usually requires some expressed buy-in.
Ending up with Tobin’s maps as our future political districts may seem like an unlikely outcome, based solely on the series of challenges ahead. But as we have seen over and over, it’s never a bad idea to expect the unexpected.