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Learning how to redraw districts

I love maps. I always have. One of my favorite books as a kid was the Reader’s Digest World Atlas. I still have it, but a lot of the pages have been stained, torn or have fallen out completely.

Bear that in mind as I indulge some mapping nerdiness.

A couple weeks ago Arizona’s redistricting commission shifted gears in a significant way. They’ve begun the part of the process where they are asking members of the public to come to meetings and tell the commission what sort of districts they want.

It appears to be especially helpful if people actually draft some suggested maps, or create a written description of the borders of the district they want.

As possibilities for new congressional and legislative districts have begun bubbling up, I’ve begun using some mapping software to evaluate what various suggestions would mean for the state.

In the little time I’ve spent doing this, I’ve come away with two overriding truths. First, redrawing Arizona’s political districts in a way that complies with the legal requirements for them is complicated. Secondly, and probably the more important thing to remember, is that redrawing political maps is all about trade-offs.

Relatively minor adjustments to districts, particularly in the more sparsely populated parts of the states, can have a huge impact on other districts throughout the state. And this process will be a zero-sum game – decisions will have to be made that satisfy some people and upset others.

The examples of how this will play out are numerous and will become more so as more suggestions come forward.

Some voters who live in the areas along the Colorado River have suggested a single congressional district that includes practically the entire western third of the state. One such proposal would include parts of Pinal and Maricopa County. But because that would include a large Hispanic population in the southwestern part of the state, this plan would create challenges for the commission as they try to comply with the Voting Rights Act, which requires that Arizona has two Hispanic-dominated congressional districts.

Another variation would split Yuma County in half (keeping the largely Hispanic portions in the district represented by U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva) and instead include most of Yavapai County. But that proposal could irk municipal leaders in southwestern Arizona, who would prefer to take concerns to only one congressional delegate.

If the redistricting commission tries to create such a “river district,” how they do it will have different implications.

Native American tribal areas will present similar trade-off scenarios, as will cities like Sedona, which straddle county lines and could reasonably be grouped with either Prescott or Flagstaff, but probably not both.

And because this has everything to do with politics, there’s a level of skepticism that must be applied to every proposal that comes forward too. The new maps will create competitions between politicians who weren’t rivals in the past, and will split up rivalries that exist now. So, if the example is a “river district,” the question must be asked: “How would this affect politicians looking to run for Congress next year?” And political parties and politicians may not want to reveal how they see these changes.

For map nerds out there, the excitement will continue to ratchet up as more of these proposals come forward. It will surely be interesting to see how decisions about these issues are justified.

As a political reporter, there are very few things I can advocate for. But one thing I enthusiastically can encourage is a maximization of political participation. There are free mapping tools out there that anyone can use. They provide details about the districts you might draw, such as population, minority-protection compliance and party affiliation composition. I would urge anyone who’s interested in this process to go check out some of the software out there. Then go to some of the redistricting commission’s meetings and tell them what you find.

Two fairly easy-to-use options are and Dave’s Redistricting tool.

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