Members of the Independent Redistricting Commission voted Wednesday 3-2 to adopt maps that are likely to preserve the Republican edge in the Arizona Legislature for the rest of the decade.
The 3-2 vote came over the objections of Shereen Lerner and Derrick Watchman, the two Democrats on the panel. Erika Neuberg, who is a political independent and chairs the commission, sided with the two Republicans.
Based on voter registration, the plan creates 13 likely “safe” districts for Republicans and 12 for Democrats. At least four of the other five have registration differences of only a few points which Neuberg said makes them politically competitive.
Lerner, however, reads the available data, including results of prior elections, to effectively give Republicans a 17-13 edge. And that, she said, is unfair given that Republicans currently control just 16 of the 30 Senate seats and 31 of 60 House seats.
She made some efforts before Wednesday’s vote to alter several lines in ways she said would create more competitive districts. That included redrawing the lines in north Phoenix in a way that she said would better unite the Deer Valley community and make the district more evenly split politically.
But those were rejected by Neuberg who said that she would entertain only minor alterations.
Lerner’s frustrations, which she expressed multiple times as the final legislative and congressional maps were being crafted, finally boiled over Wednesday when it became clear that Neuberg would side with Republicans David Mehl and Douglas York.
She said that Neuberg has sided with Republicans more often than not on changes sought to the maps.
Neuberg has not disputed that but said it has to do with a “fundamental difference that we have in terms of interpreting our constitutional mandate.” And that includes Neuberg’s argument that while the panel is required to create as many politically competitive districts as possible, that is only to the extent that it does not interfere with other guidelines like following political and geographic boundaries as well as what she interprets as “communities of interest.”
That explanation didn’t wash with Lerner.
She pointed specifically to how draft maps sought to create a legislative district that encompassed the Tucson suburban communities of Marana, Oro Valley and Casas Adobes. As crafted, that would have been a politically competitive district. And she said it kept the district within specific school districts, reflecting that requirement for honoring communities of interest.
What emerged in the final map as Legislative District 17 excluded Casas Adobes and instead extended a line around the Catalina Mountains to pick up Republican areas of east Tucson and Tanque Verde.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, Lerner said there is evidence that Republican Sen. Vince Leach, who lives in the southern Pinal Saddlebrooke subdivision and currently represents the area, was involved in behind-the-scenes lobbying to have the Southern Arizona Leadership Council propose — and the commission to adopt — the design of LD 17 to make it a safe Republican district.
There were other tweaks made to the legislative maps designed to help GOP incumbents.
One change sought by Republicans on the commission moved the unincorporated community of Liberty, outside of Buckeye, from Democratic dominated Legislative District 23 into safe Republican Legislative District 25. Among the approximately 600 residents affected are Republican state Sen. Sine Kerr.
And a line was moved just Wednesday to put Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff into safely Republican Legislative District 7, moving her residence on West Historical Route 66 out of heavily Democratic Legislative District 6.
Republican David Mehl, who pushed the change, initially declined to answer questions about the reason. But when pushed, he sidestepped the question, saying it was done to help efforts by Watchman to improve the percentage of Native American voters in LD 6.
Lerner did not dispute that it did help strengthen Navajo voting strength. But she said that’s not the entire story.
“He came over to me and he said, ‘I’d like to make this change for a friend of mine who asked me to make this change,’ ” she recalled of her conversation with Mehl. Lerner said she agreed. But she pursued the matter a bit.
“I said, ‘Don’t tell me if it’s for an incumbent,’ ” Lerner continued. “And he said, ‘Then, I won’t tell you.”
Those political considerations were not unusual before 2000 when state lawmakers — and specifically, the majority party — crafted the decennial changes in the legislative and congressional lines.
That year, however, voters created the Independent Redistricting Commission with the specific goal of trying to remove some of the political influence. It requires lines be drawn based on factors like equal population, honoring geographic and political boundaries, protecting communities of interest and creating as many competitive districts as possible to the extent that does not harm the other criteria.
And the constitutional rules for its operation specifically say “the places of residence of incumbents or candidates shall not be identified or considered.”
The moving of lines to accommodate candidates, Lerner said, gets added to what she said was a legally flawed process.
“This map does not meet the constitutional criteria, one of which is the partisan bias,” she said.
But Lerner stopped short of saying that the maps are subject to being challenged in court.
“I have no idea,” she said. “That is not my purview.”
The Arizona Democratic Party and the Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, however, wasted no time in putting out their own criticism and raising the specter of litigation.
“These maps do not reflect the increasingly competitive nature of our state,” the statement read. “We will examine every legal remedy available to fight for fair and competitive maps.”
Neuberg, for her part, said there’s a reason that so many of the districts have a Republican slant. And the reason, she said, is the federal Voting Rights Act which the commission is legally bound to follow.
It forbids changes in election laws — and district lines — that dilute the ability of minority communities to elect candidates of their choice. And given the voting patterns of Hispanic and tribal communities, Neuberg said that required the commission to effectively pack those minority districts with Democrats.
“When you honor the VRA and you take out what is a huge proportion of the Democratic population because it happens to align with those minority interests, we’re left with a state that is so disproportionately R-leaning,” she said.
Mehl said he was pleased with the result.
“I think this map is a terrific map for the state of Arizona,” he said. And he specifically defended how LD 17 was crafted, saying it creates “balanced representations” with two districts that represent the core of Tucson.
York said the maps do their best to combine communities of interest, even those separated by distance. He specifically cited LD 23.
“The community of interest in San Luis, Somerton share interests with the Hispanic farming communities of Avondale and Glendale,” York said. And he said it made sense to combine Yuma in LD 25 with the Buckeye area based on “the economic driver of agriculture.”
But Lerner said some communities of interest were ignored, citing the refusal of her colleagues to put the Verde Valley community into a legislative district with Flagstaff as it has been for the past decade. Instead it was combined with the rest of Yavapai County.