redistricting 2021

IRC chair defends vote against map

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PHOENIX — Republicans would have an edge in maintaining control of the Arizona Legislature through 2030 under a starting plan for new district lines approved Thursday by the Independent Redistricting Commission.

Thursday’s vote came after Erika Neuberg, the chair of the five-member panel and its only political independent, voted to reject a using a plan offered by the commission’s two Democrats as the basis for the final debates to come.

Commissioner Shereen Lerner said that plan would create seven districts out of the 30 that could be considered competitive. She said the balance would be split,13-12, in favor of the Democrats, though most of those competitive districts could be seen as leaning Republican.

Lerner also argued that it would not split up communities of interest.

But Neuberg sided with the two Republicans, saying she found their proposal closer to what she prefers.

None of these developments indicate what will be in the final map, set to be adopted this coming week. The commission has a Wednesday, Dec. 22 goal of adopting final legislative and congressional maps.

Panel members are still looking at a variety of issues, like whether Sedona belongs in the same legislative district as Flagstaff or should be politically linked to Verde Valley communities and the rest of Yavapai County.

Republicans contend that Sedona, with an older population, has little in common with Flagstaff which has many students from Northern Arizona University. But Democrats said the Sedona mayor and council see more in common with Flagstaff than with the Yavapai County.

Commissioners also are making other adjustments, like whether the San Tan community belongs with the rest of Pinal County or should be in the same district as Queen Creek in southeast Maricopa County.

But one of the flash points remains the obligation of the commission to create as many politically competitive districts as possible, those where candidates from either major party have at least a chance of getting elected.

The latest voter registration figures show 34.6% of Arizonans are registered as Republicans, with 31.6% Democrats and the balance as independents and Libertarians. Looking at it strictly from an R-D split, Republicans have a 52.3% advantage.

But Neuberg said it’s irrelevant to focus on whether the legislative map would give Republicans as 17-13 political edge.

“I don’t see anywhere in our constitution where it says we’re required to take a poll of how it's supposed to be apportioned,” she said.

Neuberg said that the constitution spells out certain things that the commission must consider, including “communities of interest.”

She acknowledged that there also is mention of creating as many competitive districts as possible. But Neuberg pointed out the language makes that a goal only when doing so “would create no significant detriment to the other goals.”

The problem, said Lerner, is that the map she and the Republicans support as the starting point actually works contrary to creating competitive districts. And Exhibit No. 1 is the proposed LD 17.

As originally crafted, it would have been a highly competitive district including Marana, Oro Valley and the Casas Adobes area. But Republican David Mehl succeeded in convincing Neuberg to redraw it to cut out Casas Adobes and instead stretch the district around Tucson's northern edge to the Tanque Verde area.

“The whole purpose of LD 17 ... was to give people right of center a voice,” Lerner said. “That’s part of the partisanship that goes on.”

Neuberg acknowledged Thursday that she had said in a prior meeting that her goal was to create what amounted to a safe Republican district for largely Democratic Pima County.

“I used a very poor word when we deliberated the first time,” she said, blaming that on commissioners being rookies. “And we sometimes aren't as careful with language.”

But she argued that there are legitimate reasons for drawing the lines that way, even if it does, in fact, give Republicans a political boost.

She said the proposal unites small cities and unincorporated area, “communities of interest that have such political cohesion,” having similar concerns like water, infrastructure and transportation that may differ from those in Tucson. Neuberg said what Lerner wants would prioritize competitiveness over those issues.

“And I cannot believe that a competitive district is sufficient in order to answer the political needs of these groups that want to align themselves to have some political expression,” she said.

Lerner, however, said there is a flaw in her logic.

She said that LD 17, as proposed, includes 50,000 people who actually live within Tucson.

Mehl, however, said that does not undermine the argument.

“That the eastern wards of the city of Tucson that are disenfranchised by how they do the ward elections,” he said.

That has to do with the city’s modified ward system which has been the focus of complaints — and lawsuits— by Republicans for years.

Candidates from each party are nominated within their individual districts.

But they stand for election on a citywide basis. That can result in a candidate favored by voters in a specific ward still being defeated.

“And they really align themselves with the Tanque Verde valley much more so,” Mehl said.

The issue of competitiveness isn't just about the Tucson area. Lerner questioned whether there are political motives behind how other districts are drawn.

“There’s just a lot of things that seem to be picking up districts either to make them more Republican or make them more Democrat,” she said.

“A lot of these districts are packing Democrats,” Lerner continued, moving them from otherwise competitive districts into districts where Democrats already have an edge.

Consider LD 4 which includes northeast Phoenix, Paradise Valley and part of Scottsdale.

Lerner said when the draft maps were approved in late October it was a highly competitive district, with just a half a percentage point between Republican and Democratic voters. But the newest version, she said, gives Republicans a 4.6-point edge.

She also said that changes are being made in districts in what are largely Hispanic areas of Phoenix from lines originally proposed by the Arizona Latino Coalition for Fair Redistricting.

“To divide up and change around the Latino Coalition districts to move things around in some of the ways that were done were done for partisan purposes and not for community of interest purposes,” Lerner said.

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