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Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission approves final maps

by Damon Eris, published

On January 17, the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC) approved the final versions of its Congressional and legislative maps, which have now been sent to the Department of Justice for pre-clearance to ensure that they do not run afoul of the Voting Rights Act.

The commission proved incapable of coming to a full consensus and adopted the final draft maps on a 3-2 vote, in which the Commission's Independent Chair, Colleen Mathis, sided with its two Democrats to move the process forward. The Commission's two Republicans opposed both sets of maps and charged that the Commission's work was essentially rigged to favor Democrats.

The Arizona IRC was instituted with the passage of ballot Proposition 106 by voters in November 2000. The proposition amended the state's constitution to take the redistricting power out of the hands of sitting state legislators. Nine other states have an independent redistricting body of one sort or another.

The case for an independent redistricting body is simple and straightforward. A process that allows sitting state lawmakers to draw up the district lines which will determine a state's political landscape for a decade to come is fraught with obvious conflicts of interest. In the worst case scenario, it results in a perversion of representative democratic government in which lawmakers choose their voters, rigging the electoral system in favor of incumbents and the ruling political establishment to the detriment of the electorate. An independent redistricting body is intended to insulate the redistricting process from any such political maneuvering.

But taking “politics” out of an inherently political process is easier said than done, as has been demonstrated by the experience of Arizona's Redistricting Commission. Arizona's political establishment clearly proved incapable of resisting the temptation to intervene in and disrupt the Commission's work. From the beginning, the process was warped by Republican and Democratic partisanship, with controversial 3-2 votes over the body's legal representation and its choice of consulting firms, which Republicans alleged favored Democrats.

The situation boiled to a head in November, when Governor Jan Brewer and the Republican-led State Senate took the extraordinary step of unilaterally removing the Commission's Independent chair, alleging political impropriety. Mathis was, however, re-instated by court order when the charges were found to be without any legal merit.

Republicans are extremely suspicious of the Commission's final product. "This is the Democratic map, the Democratic Party map," said Republican Redistricting Commissioner Scott Freeman, referring to the final drafts approved by the body.

Given the increase in the state's population over the last ten years, Arizona will now have nine congressional districts rather than eight. Currently, five of those eight seats are held by Republicans and three by Democrats. Under the new maps, the Republican party will have a clear advantage in four districts, while the Democrats are favored in two, and the remaining three are considered “competitive.” The commission's state legislative maps give Republicans an edge in more than half of the state's districts.

"If somebody will explain to me ... how these are Democratic maps, I will apologize," said Democratic Commissioner Jose Herrera.

The controversy surrounding the Arizona's Independent Redistricting Commission has led to calls for its abolition or reform. One proposal would increase the size of the body – providing for three Republicans, three Democrats and three Independents – and require a supermajority vote to pass its proposals.