Huge Arizona legislative districts spur debate about costs, meeting constituents’ needs
As lawmakers and hopeful candidates embark on their 2014 campaigns, many would probably be surprised to learn that they are running for some of the most populous legislative districts in the United States.
The Grand Canyon State has about 6.5 million residents, making it the 15th most populous state. But because it has only 30 legislative districts, it has the 10th most populous state Senate districts. And only in California and New Jersey — with populations of about 38 million and more than 8.8 million, respectively — do state House of Representatives members have more constituents.
Some advocates of smaller districts say states like Arizona provide less representation to its residents, particularly political, demographic and ethnic minorities that tend to get drowned out by the majority in massive districts. Some argue that legislators in smaller districts are more responsive to their constituents as well.
But others say larger districts have advantages. Taxpayers pay the salaries of lawmakers and their staffs, which cost less to the state when legislative districts are larger. Some argue that larger districts lead to more professional legislatures. And reaching a consensus is easier when there are fewer people who need to agree.
Even many states with larger populations than Arizona have smaller legislative districts, especially on the House side, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 2010, Arizona had about 213,000 residents per legislative district. In contrast, North Carolina had nearly 191,000 residents per Senate district and 79,000 per House district, despite a population of about 9.5 million. Virginia, with a population of 8 million, had 200,000 people in each Senate district and only 80,000 per House district.
Because Arizona elects two at-large House representatives in each legislative district, the disparity is greatest in the House of Representatives. Florida, America’s fourth most populous state, with about 18.8 million residents in 2010, had about 156,600 residents for each of its 80 House districts. Even Texas, which had about 25 million residents as of the last census, had fewer constituents per House district than Arizona.
Arizona’s dramatic growth
There is no consensus among political scientists on the ideal size of a state legislative district, or on the ideal number of constituents a lawmaker should represent, said Raphael Sonenshein, a political science professor at California State University, Los Angeles.
“People have been arguing about this for decades,” Sonenshein said.
Arizona has grown dramatically in the past few decades. In 1980, each legislative district had only about 90,600 residents. That number jumped to 122,000 by 1990 and 171,000 in 2000.
Political scientists say the ideal size of a legislative district depends on the unique circumstances of a state and its residents. Some states are more inclined toward local control and community-based government, which favors a larger legislature. Other states prefer a higher level of professionalism that is more common among smaller legislatures, though that often requires higher pay for full-time lawmakers and more staff.
Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School who specializes in election administration and redistricting, said there are pros and cons to smaller districts.
Larger legislatures cost more money because there are more lawmaker and staff salaries to pay, Levitt said. Arizona pays its legislators $24,000 a year, though many part-time legislatures pay less.
And negotiations and agreements can become more difficult with more members, Levitt said. In larger legislatures, legislative leadership and committee chairs become more powerful.
“For some people that’s a big con. For some people it’s a big plus,” Levitt said of the power vested in committee chairmen and legislative leaders.
Larger districts tend to reinforce the voice of the majority, Levitt said. In Arizona, that means larger districts may favor Republicans.
“Larger districts tend to reflect the statewide flavor,” Levitt said. “A slight Republican preference in a state leads to many more Republican legislators, and a slight Democratic preference would do the same.”
Karl Kurtz, the director of the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Trust for Representative Democracy, a civic education campaign, said minority groups would benefit from smaller legislative districts.
“Smaller population districts give more of an opportunity for minority populations to gain representation,” Kurtz said.
Arizona Democrats may have other reasons to take issue with the way the state elects legislators. Arizona is one of only six states that elects two House members for each district, while most states have separate, smaller House districts.
Sonenshein said when states use the kind of multi-member, at-large districts that Arizona has, the same majority essentially elects all three of a district’s lawmakers. He said it’s not surprising that Arizona has only two legislative districts where the House delegation is split between Democrats and Republicans.
“The thing about everybody being elected at large, one thing that can create is a kind of reinforcing majority within these areas,” Sonenshein said.
Supporters of smaller districts often say they create more of a connection between lawmakers and their constituents. Some political scientists say constituent services become more difficult in places like Arizona, where lawmakers represent very large numbers of people.
On the opposite side of the spectrum from Arizona is New Hampshire. With a 400-person House of Representatives for a population of about 1.3 million, the Granite State boasts the third-largest legislature in the English-speaking world, second only to Britain’s Parliament and the United States Congress.
“The mantra in New Hampshire is you always want to be able to reach out to your local representative and you want them available to you,” said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.
Scala said New Hampshire prides itself on localism and the state’s residents like keeping their lawmakers “on a short leash.” The style of governance is popular, he said, and New Hampshire’s residents have consistently rejected proposals to reduce the size of the legislature.
“The political traditions of localism die very hard,” he said.
Andrew Smith, also a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, said the massive size of the state’s House concentrates a lot of power in the hands of legislative leadership and committee chairs. Because the state has such a non-professional legislature — lawmakers are paid only $100 per year — the legislature’s role tends to be one of oversight and review.
Proponents of small districts say voters in less populous districts are more connected to their lawmakers. But while New Hampshire House members only represent about 3,300 constituents apiece, Smith said the state’s residents still don’t really know who their lawmakers are. In polls of New Hampshire residents, only 18 percent to 20 percent are even willing to venture a guess as to who represents them in the legislature, Smith said.
“We have a myth here in New Hampshire that because we have 400 state reps that everybody knows who their legislator is,” Smith said. “The truth is nobody knows who their state rep is.”
Some argue that states can get better representation for more people by keeping the districts the same size, but by adding members and changing the way people elect their legislators.
Andrea Levien, a research associate at FairVote, a Maryland-based group that advocates for alternative voting systems, said states like Arizona would benefit from using “proportional voting.” Proportional voting includes systems such as ranked-choice voting, in which voters rank their candidate preference in multi-member districts, or cumulative voting, in which people can use multiple votes for one candidate or spread them out among numerous candidates.
“This will allow for more proportional outcomes,” Levien said. “If you have a district where, let’s say, the voters are 40 percent Republican and 60 percent Democrat, you’ll make sure that Democrats aren’t getting all of the representation in that district, that Republicans are getting some representation too.”
No state currently uses a proportional voting system for its legislature, though Illinois used cumulative voting until the 1970s, Levitt of Loyola Law School said. Under that system, districts had three House representatives, and the minority party was usually able to win one of them.
“It tends to give … the plurality or the majority of the district representation, but also tends to acknowledge minority preferences,” Levitt said.
When an attorney for Senate President Andy Biggs asked the Arizona Court of Appeals to allow higher campaign contribution limits, he argued that Arizona has some of the lowest contribution limits in the country, despite the massive size of the state’s legislative districts.
“Legislators that serve large constituencies need greater funding to reach their audiences than legislators that represent small districts,” Biggs’ attorney, Mike Liburdi, wrote in a court briefing.
That principle may not apply to Biggs, R-Gilbert, who is unlikely to face a contested primary or a competitive general election in his heavily Republican district. But many political scientists say larger districts often lead to more expensive legislative races.
However, that is not the case in Arizona. Despite having the 10th largest Senate districts and third largest House districts, only 11 states have less costly Senate races on average, and 11 others have more expensive Senate races but cheaper contests for the House, according to the National Institute for Money in State Politics.
No need for smaller districts
Biggs said he doesn’t think Arizona needs to create smaller legislative districts, at least not yet. He said he doesn’t think that would be needed until the average population per district gets above 250,000.
“I’m actually comfortable with where we’re at right now. I think probably in a decade or so, if we started growing like we did the previous decade, you might want to revisit that and look at it,” Biggs said.
The Senate president added that he doesn’t know what he would do differently if the districts were smaller. But one thing that would be easier, he said, would be constituent services.
“When you represent that many people, because we don’t really have a staff individually, it is difficult as we try to meet constituent needs. But we’re designed to be a part-time legislature,” Biggs said.
Though the number of residents per legislative district in Arizona has grown dramatically, some longtime lawmakers say constituent services aren’t more difficult than they used to be. Rep. Debbie McCune Davis, who has served in the Legislature on and off since 1979, said technology such as emails has made it easier to respond to the lawmakers’ growing number of constituents.
“I think we still respond appropriately when we hear from constituents. I just think that in order to do constituent services work we have more people to try to reach,” said McCune Davis, D-Phoenix.
Rep. Lela Alston, who served in the Senate from 1977 to 1995, and was elected to the House in 2010 after a 16-year hiatus from the Legislature, said constituent services have gotten a little more difficult, but agreed that technology has made things easier. But she said it would be easier to serve constituents if lawmakers had larger staffs. The bigger difficulty has been campaigning, she said.
When Alston began her legislative career, she and her immediate family members who worked on her campaign were able to knock on every door in the district, and hit many houses twice, she said. Now it’s far more difficult to reach the voters.
“We’ve got more constituents. And it’s also harder to get around to everybody when we’re walking door to door,” said Alston, D-Phoenix.
Alston said she doesn’t think Arizona needs more legislative districts. And she said she likes the way the state’s House districts are set up, with two at-large members representing each district.
“I think it works well to have two people you can go to that have different strengths,” Alston said.
Rep. Bruce Wheeler, D-Tucson, who served one term in 1977-1978, and returned to the Legislature in 2010, said the state should split up its House districts, possibly by simply dividing Arizona’s Senate districts. He said the current system is confusing to many voters.
“I definitely think it would be better representation and more direct accountability too,” Wheeler said of smaller House districts.