Our Independent Redistricting Commission Under Attack

Thanks to Arizona voters, we are among the minority of states who have wrested control of redistricting from the legislature. The Republicans, of course, hate that. Here’s some a report on their latest attack on the voters’ 2000 amendment to the Arizona Constitution:

Excerpt from The Daily Kos Elections Voting Rights Roundup of 2/17/2018, written by Stephen Wolf and edited by David Nir.

LEADING OFF

• Arizona: Republican legislators just won’t give up in their fight gain the ability to engage in partisan gerrymandering by dismantling Arizona’s independent redistricting commission. They recently advanced a proposed state constitutional amendment out of a state Senate committee that would dramatically reorganize the commission in a way that would render it toothless. If the voters approve this in a November ballot referendum, the commission would effectively be neutralized, giving the GOP-majority legislature the power to pass its own gerrymanders. This isn’t the first time that Arizona Republicans have gone to extremes to fight for the ability to gerrymander, which we’ll explain below.

Back in 2000, voters approved a ballot initiative to create the commission itself after legislators gerrymandered decade after decade. This commission has two Republicans and two Democrats, who then pick a fifth unaffiliated tiebreaker. Most importantly, legislators and party officials themselves don’t get to nominate who can serve on the commission, making this one of the very few in the country that can truly be deemed independent of legislative dominance.

Independence from legislative control is critical because even when states create commissions where legislative leaders of both parties select an equal number of partisans, those commissioners are far more likely to engage in bipartisan incumbent-protection gerrymandering, while regular citizens often favor more competitive lines. And furthermore, Arizona’s commission is explicitly tasked with using partisanship in an impartial manner to produce competitive districts without intentionally favoring one party over the other in an undue manner like a partisan gerrymander would. indeed, the current congressional and legislative maps give neither party much of an advantage.

This commission produced maps that relatively favored Republicans after the 2000 census, and Republicans let them be. But after the 2010 census, Republicans became apoplectic when Colleen Mathis, the lone independent on the commission, sided with Democrats to approve district maps that didn’t give the GOP any unfair advantage. Republican Gov. Jan Brewer and the GOP-run state Senate then overstepped their authority by firing Mathis, only to see the state Supreme Court promptly rebuke them and reinstate her to the commission.

Republicans then sued all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to argue that any voter-initiated redistricting reform measure violated the U.S. Constitution, which would have struck a deadly blow to redistricting reform efforts in America. But fortunately, the court upheld the constitutionality of the commission in 2015, paving the way for redistricting reform advocates to attempt ballot initiatives in a large number of states. But Republicans didn’t even give up then. In 2016, they again sued all the way to the Supreme Court to get the maps themselves declared unconstitutional, but the court once again rebuked them.

Now, Republicans are proposing to expand the commission from five to eight members. While the commission could use reforms to promote greater citizen involvement and more bipartisanship, the GOP’s proposal is quite simply poisonous because legislative leaders would directly choose who serves on the commission. Legislators would select an equal number of members from both parties, while each party would also get to nominate one supposedly unaffiliated commissioner. But of course, giving legislators free reign to pick whomever they want will just result in both parties getting one independent each who is really a partisan, meaning there will be a deadlock.

Most dangerously, this GOP amendment would give the legislature itself the ability to pass a map regardless of what the commission does, although it would be subject to voter approval in a referendum. But because the commission’s independents would be partisans in all but name, both parties would essentially have an equal number of members, giving each party a veto. All Republican legislators would have to do is appoint members who oppose any plan, then when the commission deadlocks and produces no maps, GOP legislators can pass their own gerrymanders and claim the commission failed in its duty.

If this measure passes, it would mean nothing short of the end of the commission when one party controls both legislative chambers. And furthermore, the maps wouldn’t even be subject to gubernatorial veto, making it even worse than some states where redistricting is just normal legislation under divided government.

Republicans seem intent on passing this measure, but voters will hopefully reject it at the ballot box. While this commission is imperfect and could use reform, it’s far fairer and more democratic than allowing the majority party to engage in unfettered gerrymandering or having corrupt bipartisan commissions where legislative leaders simply protect incumbents from both parties, stifling competitive elections.

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