PHOENIX — Arizonans tired of the politics surrounding the once-a-decade legislative and congressional redistricting process voted to pull the job from the Legislature in 2000 and give it to an independent commission.
But getting politics out of the high-stakes game has proven difficult.
How the districts are drawn is a big deal because it can determine which political party controls the state Legislature and has more influence in Congress.
Proponents of Proposition 106 in 2000 argued that the lines were being “gerrymandered” to keep one party or prominent lawmaker in office.
Arizona’s first crack at the effort of reshaping the district boundaries under the new system led to a decade-long, but ultimately unsuccessful, lawsuit filed by Democrats who said the five-member commission didn’t make enough of the districts competitive. The commission also faced complaints from local government officials and tribes that didn’t want their communities split.
After new census numbers for Arizona were released in early 2011, the process began again. And so far it’s making the fight over the 2002 maps seem like child’s play.
Starting with the selection of a group of potential commissioners in 2010, the process has been marred in controversy. The five-member board that ultimately was seated included two Republicans, two Democrats and an independent who sits as chair, as required by the law. But soon after Colleen Mathis and the board began the complex process of drawing maps, the chairwoman, herself, came under fire.
First, Mathis voted with Democrats who rejected Republican choices for lawyers and mapping consultants.
Then, when draft maps were released months later, Republican Gov. Jan Brewer and GOP leaders in the Legislature objected. Brewer eventually removed Mathis, accusing her of neglect of duty and misconduct by saying she ignored constitutional processes and criteria for mapping. The Arizona Supreme Court soon re-instated Mathis, ruling Brewer had no legitimate reason for removing her.
Back at work, the commission approved final maps in early 2012 that would be in place for the next decade. Those maps carved up the state’s nine congressional districts into four that were solidly Republican, two Democratic and three that could be won by any party.
Democrats won all three competitive districts in 2012 — the 1st, 2nd and 9th — by relatively small margins. All three are likely to be slug-fests again this year.
The commission is now facing three lawsuits, two in federal court and one in state court.
One federal case involves a challenge to the legislative maps. A three-judge panel heard arguments last year, but it hasn’t issued a ruling. A second federal case was decided recently, with another three-judge panel rejecting an argument from legislative Republicans that the commission lacked constitutional authority to oversee the process. That case is now being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The state court case challenging the commission’s maps for congressional districts is being litigated in state court. That case accused the commission of breaking its own rules in creating the congressional maps.
The 2000 constitutional amendment required the commission to draw equal-population districts and take into account goals that included communities of interest, compactness and competitiveness — whether individual districts could realistically be won by both major parties’ candidates.
Steve Lynn, the commission’s chairman during its first 10 years, said the latest commission appeared much more politicized that the one he chaired.
“The integrity of the process was night and day between this time and last time,” Lynn said. “Clearly, we did a better job of it than the current commission. The integrity of the process was night and day between this time and last time.
He points to the commission’s split decisions on consultants, lawyers and the final maps themselves.
“All of those decisions that were made this time around were made 3-2 with the chair siding with the Democrats on the commission,” Lynn said. “All of those decisions when I was chair were made 5-0, all inclusive, and they were not political.”
Nonetheless, Lynn said the process is far and away better than when the Legislature did the remapping.
“Because it’s an open process and because people have the opportunity to interact with the commission and because there are rules that ultimately are going to be determined by a court as to whether or not they were followed, it is still a preferable process to the closed-door, behind the scene deal-making that the Legislature was engaged in in previous redistrictings.”
The chairman of the committee that pushed Proposition 106 in 2000 had a different take. He said the first go-around was problematic, but the second commission’s work was much more effective.
“Sure it was contentious — the governor essentially fired the chair of the commission until the Supreme Court said, ‘Uh-uh, you can’t do that,'” said Jim Pederson, a Phoenix developer who is a Democratic activist. “But look — we got a thorough airing of how these districts are formed. All the criteria was out there. There was nothing in the smoke-filled rooms or down in the basement of the state Capitol, it was out there in public. And prior to 2000 that where it was, it was in the back rooms.”