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Redistricting commission begins to tackle competitiveness

The state’s redistricting commission is taking up the thorny issue of how to create districts in which both major parties can field congressional and legislative candidates with a realistic shot of winning elections, a key part of balancing sometimes conflicting redistricting criteria.

There was a seven-year court fight over whether Arizona’s last redistricting commission injected enough competitiveness in the legislative map, and the current five-member commission on Wednesday was briefed on possible options for measuring competitiveness.

The Independent Redistricting Commission is still in the preliminary stages of line-drawing as members explore possible changes to initial “grid” maps for legislative and congressional districts to take into account all the constitutionally required criteria.

As required by the Arizona Constitution, the initial maps were drawn with consideration for only two criteria — equal population and compactness of districts.

Now the real push-and-pull is getting under way as the commissioners also must consider competiveness, so-called “communities of interest,” minorities’ voting rights, local government boundaries and geographic features.

Competitiveness is particularly difficult because it can be at odds with protecting of minorities’ voting rights. That’s because putting enough Democratic-leaning minorities in a relatively small number of districts to ensure that minorities have the ability to influence election outcomes means there are fewer Democratic voters to put in other districts to make them competitive.

“Those two things don’t go hand in hand, with the voting performance of some of those congressional and legislative districts,” said state Rep. Richard Miranda, a Tolleson Democrat who is among Hispanic politicians presenting the commission with redistricting ideas for minority-dominated districts.

However, a Democratic Party activist from Phoenix said the commission needs to strive to create more districts that reflect that the Democratic and Republican parties have each done well in recent elections.

After the 2008 election, five Democrats and three Republicans held U.S. House seats, but that ratio flipped in 2010, noted Joe Murphy. “In a state like ours, that should be normal because we’re a purple state.”

Ken Strasma, the commission’s chief mapping consultants, told the commission that it can use various measures to gauge competitiveness of proposed new districts.

Those can include past voting patterns and voter registration figures, but registration figures for independents don’t appear helpful because those voters tend to side with the party with the most voters in a given district, Strasma said.

Commissioners postponed any action in deciding on a method, saying they want more time to study the data presented by Strasma’s firm, Strategic Telemetry.

The last redistricting created only a handful of legislative districts regarded as competitive between the parties, while Republicans enjoyed an advantage in most other districts considered leaning strongly toward one party or the other.

Democrats filed a lawsuit challenging the legislative map, saying the last commission didn’t put enough emphasis on competiveness.

They won at the trial court, but their case ended in 2009 when the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that the commission acted reasonably in drawing its map and took the competiveness goal into consideration.

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