On Competitive vs. Safe Districts and Balancing

Op-Ed by William John Bowlus-Root, Yuma

The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC) is busy redrawing the congressional and legislative districts under the changes to our constitution that resulted from the passage of Proposition 106 in 2000.  Before then, the legislatures drew those boundaries to create ‘safe’ districts, districts that virtually ensured their party’s candidates would win, even if they were not the majority party.

But that led to poor governance.  The voters could see that safe districts are inherently dysfunctional.  Political parties (and incumbents) like safe districts because they can retain power in the legislature with minimal effort and expenditures.  Party bosses can run sub-standard candidates they can more easily control (qualified opponents don’t bother running) who don’t need to offer innovative policies to address district issues to win re-election (it’s better to do nothing than stir things up).  The Public becomes disenchanted with government that’s unresponsive to their needs and they quickly disengage from the political process.  Voters of both parties stop voting when the outcome is already decided.  Safe districts corrode our democracy.

So Proposition 106 was passed to charge the new IRC to create “fair and competitive” districts.

To win a competitive district, both parties must put forth their best candidates, those who listen to the voters and respond with innovative ideas and programs and debate them in public.  Voters become engaged again in the political process, their government, their communities, and their elections.  They vote in greater numbers and expect more of their elected officials.  All of that leads to more effective and responsive governance.  But you only get that when you have districts that are competitive.

The current Draft Maps drawn by the IRC fall far short of this mandate.  Only 4 of the 9 congressional districts are competitive.  And of the 30 legislative districts, only 6 are competitive.  The other 24 are safe districts (13 Republican, 11 Democrat)!  A full 80% of the legislative districts are dysfunctional, the kind that the old legislatures might have drawn.

You say, ‘Oh but those safe districts are balanced between the Republicans and Democrats so they cancel each other out.’  That may be true for the balance of power in the legislature, but that’s not the point.  The voters sought to stop the inevitable corrosion of democracy that occurs within safe districts.  Balancing safe districts between the parties and calling that competitive is a gross misunderstanding of Proposition 106 and does not justify using them.

Safe districts are bad apples.  And two spoiled apples do not make a good pie.

The health of our democracy must be defended by insisting the IRC eliminate as many safe districts as possible – regardless of the party they prop up.

You can provide feedback to the IRC by attending an upcoming public hearing or through the Contact Us form at the bottom of their home page (https://irc.az.gov).

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