They made it sound so simple, these proponents of an independent government body to draw the maps every 10 years that determine how Arizona’s delegates to Congress and the state Legislature are elected.
Take the job away from lawmakers who really only care about protecting their own seats and the power of their parties. Put the task in the hands of a group of people somewhat insulated from politics, and they would draw district maps that balance the concerns of various forces and create more opportunities for Republicans and Democrats to compete on an equal footing.
This was the message that swayed state voters in 2000 to approve changes to the state constitution that created the Arizona Redistricting Commission.
But as often happens in politics, events didn’t work out as the initiative’s backers expected. In fact, the district maps drawn by the five-member commission are considered less competitive between the two major parties than maps created by the Legislature a decade earlier.
So the Fair Districts, Fair Elections campaign is back this year with another proposed constitutional amendment to force the creation of more districts with a near-equal match of Democratic and Republican voters.
“Certainly, we wanted to take it out of the hands of the politicians. And we did that,” said Jim Pederson, the Democratic Party financier who led the 2000 campaign and has provided $135,000 in “seed” money for the new initiative. “But the end result was not what the people wanted. So this would correct that.”
ERODING EAST VALLEY'S VOICE
As they did in 2000, some key Republicans claim the ulterior motive behind the Fair Districts, Fair Elections movement is to dilute the statewide advantage in voter registration currently held by their party and to create more areas where Democrats can hold power beyond their normal voting strength with the aid of uncommitted independents.
It’s a view shared by redistricting commission Chairman Steve Lynn of Tucson.
“Frankly, there are only about 15 Democrat politicians that are challenging this,” said Lynn, required by the 2000 initiative to be registered as an independent. “The other 6 million Arizonans seem pretty happy with the districts they have been voting in, with minor adjustments, since 2002.”
If Lynn and Republicans critics are right, the only way to create a higher number of competitive districts is to break up large clusters of Republican voters and bunch them together with Democrats. That would put a bull’s-eye on the East Valley and its rich concentration of Republican voters. The East Valley would have to be sliced and diced and then connected to distant, Democrat-heavy parts of Maricopa County and elsewhere in Arizona.
“Those districts are going to be broken up and will be running all the way out to the New Mexico border, to the Colorado border and to the Mexican border. That’s just insane,” said Sen. Thayer Verschoor of Gilbert, the Senate majority leader.
But initiative proponents said that would happen only if the redistricting commission tried to make every single district competitive, which is impossible under various legal and geographical constraints.
COMPETITION DOES EXIST
Arizona currently has eight congressional districts, which can change every 10 years and likely will rise to 10 or 11 districts after the 2010 census, and 30 legislative districts.
Only one of the congressional districts is considered competitive, which means 5 percentage points or less separate the voter registration numbers between Republicans and Democrats. That district in southern Arizona is currently served by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Tucson Democrat.
There are four legislative districts labeled as competitive, including District 17 which covers southern Scottsdale and the northern two-thirds of Tempe. That district’s senator and two House members are all Democrats as well.
This is a trend which causes critics of Fair Districts, Fair Elections to challenge the whole notion that balancing voter registration between the parties should be the primary goal of district map-making. Arizona’s congressional districts are equally split between Republican and Democratic officeholders, while the numbers in the state Legislature roughly mirror the GOP’s statewide advantage in registered voters.
“Competitiveness is a poor way to judge the quality of a district,” Lynn said. “A better question is are they compact enough? Do they make logical sense? And do they protect the communities of interest that representatives are supposed to serve?”
But Pederson said 2006 was an unusual election year where success for Democrats nationally carried over to even some legislative districts. He’s convinced such results won’t last and wide disparities in voter registration for Republican-heavy districts will reassert themselves.
And it’s not just Republican-safe districts that bother leaders of the new initiative campaign. Prescott Republican Roberta Voss points to the 10 legislative districts with a large advantage for Democrats.
“The majority of Republicans that I have talked to believe they have the best campaign themes and the best message,” Voss said. “So let’s prove it by having more competitive districts.”
VOTING WITH NEIGHBORS OR STRANGERS
The most difficult challenge in predicting the likely impact of the new initiative is the potential clash between competitiveness and the federal Voting Rights Acts of 1965.
After the legislative district maps were challenged in court in 2004, the redistricting commission had its outside experts draw some test maps that created as many competitive districts as possible. The results (as seen on the accompanying graphics) look rather strange. In one case, Gilbert is combined with parts of Pinal and Pima counties all the way down to South Tucson.
On a second map, Mesa is divided into nine different districts so that its many Republicans can balance groupings of Democrats elsewhere.
Republican critics point to these maps as clear evidence of what could happen if the new initiative were adopted. The idea of a congressman or state lawmaker representing you and your neighbors would disappear, Verschoor said. Instead, elected officials would come from districts so weirdly shaped that voters would have almost nothing in common except they live in the same state.
But the hypothetical maps made no attempt to protect the voting power of Arizona’s minorities, mostly Hispanics and Indian tribes, as required by the Voting Rights Act. So initiative proponents dismiss any reference to them as political shenanigans.
“It never could pass pre-clearance with the Justice Department,” said Ken Clark, chairman of Fair Districts, Fair Elections. “It doesn’t pay any attention to communities of interest. So why even pull out these maps? Is it to scare people?”
Lynn said he still found the exercise illustrating because when the commission’s experts factored in issues related to minority voting, most of the competitive districts were gone.
The problem is that Hispanics and American Indians tend to register and to vote as Democrats. So when they are grouped together to comply with federal law, their districts became “safe” for Democratic candidates and there are far fewer Democrat voters elsewhere to match with Republicans in other districts, Lynn said.
“It is an immutable fact that these two things (more Republican voters statewide and the Voter Rights Act) create a conflict that’s extremely difficult to overcome,” he said.
MINORITY RIGHTS DON'T HAVE TO CONFLICT
Redistricting consultant Tony Sissons of Phoenix strongly disagrees with Lynn’s assessment. He has been a leading expert in an ongoing lawsuit challenging the state’s legislative districts and he has been an unpaid adviser to the new initiative campaign.
Based partly on the weight of his testimony, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge ordered the creation of a map with seven competitive districts instead of the current four. The redistricting commission did so under protest, and that issue is now under review by the Arizona Court of Appeals.
“Nothing stops a Voting Rights Act district from being competitive,” Sissons said. “This comes from two decades now of running my fingers through Arizona’s districting issues and knowing to the extent that changes ripple across the map.”
Sissons said the trick is to worry less about following traditional boundaries such as city limits and school districts, and focus more on pulling together nearby pockets of Democrats and Republicans.
That implies the real change needed deals more with style and attitude at the redistricting commission than a stricter set of rules. But you can’t dictate style and attitude in a constitutional amendment.
So the new initiative from Fair Districts, Fair Elections would declare competitive districts the state’s highest priority after meeting the requirements of federal law. Other changes would practically guarantee a completely different makeup to the redistricting commission after the 2010 census, with the idea that these new officials would honor the initiative’s goals.
But what happens if Arizona winds up with an agency willing to draw districts that reach from one end of the state to the other just to create one more competitive race?
Such a freakish nightmare doesn’t seem to square with reality right now. But then, no one imagined in 2000 that an independent commission could possibly create more districts than the Legislature that are “safe” for the incumbent political party.
Voters need to weigh the potential downside to manufacturing competition at the ballot box.