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Group gives redistricting panel’s efforts high marks – so far

It’s still a work in progress.

But an organization that studies the fairness of political redistricting plans nationwide likes some of what it sees developing here.

The Princeton Gerrymandering Project is giving the proposed map of new legislative districts a grade of A in partisan fairness.

So out of the 30 legislative districts, the lines give Republicans a sufficient edge in 14 to pretty much guarantee whoever is nominated can win the election, with two others leaning that way. By comparison, it gives Democrats nine seats that should be safe for the party’s nominee with 5 others with a Democratic leaning.

Ditto, the researchers say, with the draft map of how the Independent Redistricting Commission is drawing the lines that will exist for the state’s nine congressional districts for the decade, with a Democratic edge in three and a Republican edge in three others.

The analysis is of what is available publicly which is still an early version. Commission members meet again this week to continue making adjustments, with a goal of having something ready just before Christmas to use in the August 2022 primary and November general election.

But the project is less impressed with the number of competitive districts now being contemplated, places where candidates from either party have a chance of winning. And that is far different than partisan split.

Out of those 30 legislative districts, the project’s analysts found just seven in the maps so far being considered by the commission where the margin of vote share between the parties was in a range where the vote could go either way. And only three of the state’s nine congressional districts were listed in the “competitive zone.”

Put another way, whoever wins the partisan primary in 23 of the districts is a virtual shoo-in to take the seat in the general election.

And just three of the nine congressional districts are considered competitive.

That rates just a grade of C.

What makes that significant is that the 2000 voter-approved law creating the commission requires that, to the extent possible, it create as many politically competitive districts as possible where a candidate from either party could win the general election.

But there are other factors that could get in the way.

It starts with the fact that the law mandates that districts be pretty much equal in population.

For congressional districts, commissioners are shooting for the area of about 794,500 for each.

Arizona’s preliminary Congressional District map.

Courts have provided a bit more wiggle room for legislative districts. But the goal here is about 238,000 for each of the 30 districts.

The law also requires commissioners to create districts that respect communities of interest and use county boundaries when possible.

But Adam Podowitz-Thomas, the senior legal strategist for the project, said the commission should not be disappointed by the rating.

“From our perspective, C is good,” he told Capitol Media Services on Monday. “C is an average.”

Potentially more significant, the nonpartisan project finds reason to like what it sees.

“Arizona is doing better than a lot of other places,” Podowitz-Thomas said. And much of it comes down to the process used here.

Prior to 2000 it was left up to state lawmakers to draw both the legislative and congressional lines. That often resulted in the majority party crafting maps that were advantageous to its interests.

It also sometimes led to incumbent lawmakers drawing potential political challengers into different districts, even from within the same party.

Preliminary Congressional District map for Phoenix-metro area.

That year voters approved creation of the Independent Redistricting Commission. It consists of two Republicans and two Democrats, each picked by elected party leaders. They, in turn, choose a fifth person, a political independent, to chair the panel.

Arizona is now in the third cycle of that line drawing.

“What we’re seeing in states that are strictly partisan controlled is that whatever party is in control is sort of maximizing the number of ‘safe’ seats that it can generate,”  Podowitz-Thomas said.

In a broad general sense, much of what the draft maps show is no real surprise.

The fastest growth has been in Maricopa County, where population is up more than 21%t since the last time the maps were drawn. And Pinal County posted a 30.5% increase.

By contrast, Cochise and Santa Cruz counties actually lost population. And Pima County grew by less than 9%, less than the statewide 12% average.

So, to create districts of equal population and live within the numbers — 30 legislative and nine congressional districts — that means even more districts packed into urban areas to meet the population requirements. Conversely, it means large, sprawling rural districts putting geographically diverse communities into the same district.

And it’s not just rural areas that are affected by unequal population growth around the state.

For example, the draft congressional map divides Tucson between two districts. That is not unusual, with a similar split now.

The proposed line, however, is roughly north-south along I-10 and I-17 compared with the current maps which include downtown and the University of Arizona in that western half.

But to get the 794,500 residents it needs, that proposed west side district is drawn to include not just Yuma but the western Phoenix suburbs of Buckeye, Glendale and Goodyear. And that potentially dilutes the votes and influences of those living in the Tucson section of the district to elect lawmakers of their own choosing

That theoretically could be solved by moving the line between the districts to the east to take in more of Tucson. But then this district, which already takes in all of Cochise County, would be short of population.

That could be solve by moving sections of Marana, Oro Valley and southern Pinal County into the district. Only thing is, that would add more Republicans than Democrats, giving the GOP an edge.

And then there are ripple effects.

Those areas now are proposed to be in a district that sprawls all the way through not just Casa Grande and Apache Junction but into southwest Phoenix. Take away population to balance a Tucson district and the remaining district then needs to pick up more people elsewhere.

And the ripple effects continue.

There are other issues.

One is trying to keep Native American tribes in the same congressional and legislative districts even as population growth in the area has not kept pace with the rest of the state.

This is more than just an academic goal.

The Voting Rights Act generally forbids changes in state election laws that make it harder for minorities to elect someone of their choice.

There already is a legislative district with three lawmakers from the Navajo Reservation. Expanding that district to include large non-reservation areas could endanger that status and run afoul of federal law.

But here, too, any changes result in more ripple effects, doing things like putting Camp Verde and Cottonwood into the same district as Prescott, something that does not now exist. Other options include whether and how to divide Flagstaff.

That same provision of the Voting Rights Act also is likely to come into play as commission members work to ensure that the number of legislative districts represented by minority lawmakers are not reduced.

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