IRC: Stop Packing and Cracking

By Ann Heitland, Coconino County Party Chair

This is a longer version of an Op-Ed published on December 5 on AZCentral.com

The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC) was established by the voters in 2000 to take redistricting out of the backrooms of the Legislature and place it in the hands of an independent commission with the direction to create “fair and competitive maps.” The idea was to get away from gerrymandering where the party holding the majority in the Legislature could push its opponents’ voters into a few districts (“packing”) or divide (“crack”) those voters into so many districts that they had no chance to make electoral gains. Unfortunately, the IRC’s proposed maps pack and crack. Northern Arizona is a case in point.

Redrawing the lines of Congressional and Legislative districts happens every 10 years based on new Census numbers with the goal of creating districts of roughly equal population, which are geographically compact and respect communities of interest and geographic features and boundary lines while complying with the Voting Rights Act and striving for competitiveness. The Arizona Constitution requires the IRC to honor each of these criteria.

The IRC is currently accepting public comment on maps of proposed Congressional and Legislative Districts that will be in force for the next decade (Draft Maps). Hearings have taken place throughout the state and will continue through December 4.

One of the first tasks of the IRC this year was to define “competitiveness” for this round of redistricting. After receiving expert testimony, the IRC chose two metrics: The average vote spread between Democratic and Republican candidates in 9 recent statewide elections in the proposed district and whether a single party would have won all 9 of those elections in the proposed district.

By the IRC’s own definition of competitiveness, the Draft Maps fail to create competitive districts in 24 of Arizona’s 30 Legislative Districts. Fully 80 % of the state’s residents would be in non-competitive “safe” districts – discouraging participation by Republicans, Democrats, and registered Independents alike. Why vote if one party is sure to win? Why vote in the General Election if the Primary determined the winner? Furthermore, of these “safe” districts, 13 are Republican and 11 Democratic, making Republican control of the Legislature highly likely for 10 more years.

The IRC has done a little better with Congressional Districts but still fewer than half (only 4 of 9) are competitive districts. Of the 5 non-competitive districts, 3 are safely Republican and 2 safely Democratic. It doesn’t have to be this way.

In Northern Arizona, the relatively sparse population and partisan distribution means some of the four Legislative Districts north of Phoenix must be non-competitive. Nonetheless, the IRC could create one competitive Legislative District and one competitive Congressional District in the north. The competitive Legislative District would look a lot like the present LD6 established by the 2011 commission, which combines the eastern third of Yavapai County (Sedona and the Verde Valley) in a district with southern Coconino County, and parts of Gila and Navajo counties.

But, instead of using Mingus Mountain as a natural point to divide Yavapai County as in the present maps, the Legislative Draft Map keeps Yavapai County whole in a safe Republican Legislative District and creates a new safe Republican district to the east. Democrats are packed into a single district including Flagstaff and several Native American tribal lands. Predominately Democratic Sedona is split (“cracked”) between two safe Republican districts. This shifts the political landscape in northern Arizona from two Republican Legislative Districts, one Democratic District, and one competitive District to three safe Republican Districts and one safe Democratic District.  The mandate for competitiveness is lost completely.  Furthermore, while Northern Arizona currently sends a Native American Senator and two Native Representatives to the Legislature, placing Flagstaff with the tribal district as the Legislative Draft Map reduces the chances of that happening in the future because there will be Flagstaff Democrats with legislative ambitions. This is potentially a Voting Rights Act violation.

Likewise, in the Congressional Draft Map, Yavapai County is made whole, ensuring a safe Republican Congressional District and diluting the voting power of 13 Native American tribes. Previously, the east side of Yavapai County was with the highly competitive Congressional District 1, where Democrats have eked out victories, most recently with Congressman Tom O’Halleran. Western Yavapai was combined with the Colorado River counties making a safe Congressional District for Republicans like Paul Gosar. In the IRC’s proposal for the next round, O’Halleran’s seat is absorbed into a newly drawn non-competitive Republican Congressional District while the Colorado River District expands into Maricopa County to preserve a safe Republican seat.

Keeping Yavapai County whole is key to this scheme. There is a cost to the county: The Draft Maps take away one of the county’s Congressional representatives and three of its legislators, reducing its voice in Congress and the Legislature. But Yavapai County’s sacrifice solidifies Republican majorities in the state legislature for the next 10 years and unseats a popular, moderate Democratic Congressman. Not surprisingly, at an IRC public hearing in Prescott Valley, Ken Bennett — last seen as spokesperson for the Fraudit — appeared to support this gerrymander.

In Prescott Valley and at other hearings in Northern Arizona, Republicans rounded up testimony in support of making the Draft Maps based on a disinformation campaign. They asserted that splitting Yavapai County into two districts as it has been for the last 10 years is suddenly wrong because the county provides countywide services like libraries, a community college, a sheriff, and building codes, and everyone pays property taxes in Prescott. Many of the speakers seemed to think the IRC was redrawing their county boundary instead of Congressional and Legislative districts. Some criticized Coconino County Supervisors for invading Yavapai’s “sovereignty” because Coconino County submitted an alternative map proposal. What baloney!

Whether there are competitive districts in Northern Arizona or not, Prescott and the Quad Cities of Yavapai County will be in Republican-dominated districts. Why then do four Republican Yavapai County Supervisors support Draft Maps that reduce their county’s power in Congress and the Legislature by half? The only explanation can be that they have greater loyalty to the new radical Republican Party than they do to Yavapai County, whose interests they have taken an oath to serve. (The 5th Supervisor, a Democrat, issued a statement saying she urges the commission to create competitive maps.)

Let’s hope the Independent Chair of our Redistricting Commission follows the direction of the voters and the constitutional requirement to create fair and competitive maps. Redrawing the lines in Northern Arizona is a step in that direction.

Read more about Republican Gerrymandering in Arizona.

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