The end of the once-a-decade redistricting process in Arizona is near, bringing with it bitter partisan fighting and an independent chair whose decisions have aligned with Republican interests.
The latest draft map of new congressional districts would give Republicans four safe districts and Democrats only the two required by the Voting Rights Act to ensure the state’s Latino population gets represented. The three remaining districts — of nine total — are considered competitive, but two are Republican-leaning.
Democrats are expressing outrage that their current 5-4 advantage in congressional seats in the state could flip to a 6-3 Republican majority.
The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission is scheduled to wrap up by Wednesday with votes on final congressional and legislative maps that will set the political tone in the state for the next 10 years — barring any successful legal challenges.
Following a long, tense day of making incremental changes to the congressional map, commissioners adjourned before 7 p.m. after receiving the latest draft map version from their mapping consultant. Commissioners are expected to vote on that map on Wednesday morning before deliberating on a final legislative map.
Here’s what to know as this historic process culminates in a result that experts have predicted would leave few residents truly happy:
1. Partisan fight explodes in final days
Pressure has built steadily on the five-member commission during its meetings, which began in August following what critics say was a biased commissioner-selection process gamed by Gov. Doug Ducey. On the eve of scheduled final-map votes, it’s now erupting in arguments and anger by the two Democratic commissioners.
The commission has two Democratic commissioners, Shereen Lerner and Derrick Watchman, and two Republican commissioners, David Mehl and Douglas York, plus independent chair Erika Neuberg.
Lerner began Tuesday’s meeting with strong complaints about the overall process, angry about the latest draft congressional map that was advanced with Neuberg acting as a tiebreaker for a 3-2 vote with the Republicans. With the state’s current delegation of five Democrats and four Republicans, “there is no excuse for drawing a ‘six-to-three’ map,” she said.
“We’ve reached a critical juncture because we’re at the end and I am very disappointed and very frustrated,” Lerner told the other commissioners. “I truly believed we would come together for the good of the state. … I feel we have worked in good faith, but we have not gotten to that point.”
Neuberg countered that the latest congressional map was still “highly competitive,” with four districts within the commission’s defined competitiveness range. She noted that looking strictly at the split of Republicans and Democrats was not part of the constitutional criteria the commission was supposed to consider.
“Not only do I love what I’m seeing,” she said, but the new congressional map was an “excellent start” that she looked forward to “perfecting” before the final vote.
Commissioners launched into several arguments on Tuesday, interrupting and talking over each other multiple times, with Lerner at one point asking Mehl not to “patronize her.”
By law, the districts should be as compact as possible instead of appearing gerrymandered, and must essentially have equal populations. Other criteria include keeping communities of interest together, competitiveness when it doesn’t interfere with other criteria and adherence with state and federal laws, including the Voting Rights Act
2. Chair has voted with Republicans
Neuberg is a former registered Republican whose emphasis on her own neutrality was viewed with suspicion by Democratic groups. She’s opposed from the start the Democrats’ vision that competitiveness in districts, as opposed to lopsided districts in which candidates of only one party can win, should have top priority.
Arizona and all other states redraw their political maps once every 10 years based on the census. Until voters created the independent redistricting system with a ballot initiative in 2000, the Legislature created new maps, often with a strong eye to drawing lines that would keep incumbents in power.
While the original idea was to take politics out of the district-drawing process, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. The first iteration of the commission leaned Republican, but the 2011 commission was more favorable to Democrats because its independent chair, Colleen Mathis, sided repeatedly with the two Democratic commissioners on the panel.
When Neuberg has voted to advance draft maps as new “starting points” to work from, she’s most often voted with the two Republicans. She voted with Democrats twice in the past week, but those votes appear to be anomalies.
With the deadline looming before final votes, Neuberg made it clear she would not compromise her priorities and that she saw the most current draft maps, which Lerner and Watchman oppose, as nearly perfect.
“I like the maps,” she said. “I like that we have some true toss-ups.”
The Democratic Party, which has criticized Neuberg since her selection as chair, took off the gloves with the release of a scathing statement targeting her Tuesday.
“Neuberg should be an unbiased arbiter in redistricting matters, but her actions expose her as an independent in name only who is instead serving as an additional Republican commissioner,” said Kelly Burton, president of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, and arm of the Democratic party that’s chaired by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
She argued that the current congressional map gives Republicans even more of an advantage and would “regularly elect two Democrats and seven Republicans to Congress, which does not reflect the state she purports to serve.”
Lerner had defended Neuberg as recently as last week, cautioning the public to avoid personal attacks against the chair.
Neuberg, as well as the commissioners, hope they can achieve a unanimous final-map vote that would give the public the best assurance of a lack of partisanship.
The unraveling of what was a relatively congenial process over the past few months between the commissioners was wearing on Neuberg, she acknowledged during a break in the action on Tuesday.
“I’m miserable,” she said.
3. Tribal/Latino concerns marginalized
Commissioner Watchman, a member of the Navajo Nation who has focused almost solely on Native American issues in his role on the panel, said he agreed with Lerner’s latest complaints and reiterated concerns that the state’s 22 tribes were not given an elevated status as a community of interest.
“There’s a unique history here, and so, you know, trying to compare tribal nations [to] golfers or shopping centers,” he said, “I think we’ve got to get past that.”
The draft congressional map features a new Congressional District 2 that encompasses the Navajo Nation and many other tribes around the state, and has a 21% Native American makeup. But indigenous tribes previously were located in the current Congressional District 1, represented by Democrat U.S. Rep. Tom O’Halleran.
The draft District 2 was competitive and leaning Republican when approved by a 5-0 vote on Oct. 28. It now could be considered a solid GOP district according to a commission staff analysis, falling just outside the competitiveness range following changes to district borders in recent days to ensure all districts have equal population and avoid splitting communities of interest.
“What I’m looking for is how do we put together congressional and legislative districts that allows for tribal neighbors, who are very close to a lot of rural communities, how do we give them a lot of opportunities — especially now, to get past COVID-19,” Watchman said.
On the latest version draft of the map for districts in the Legislature, one has a majority of Native American voters, and seven districts contain Latino majorities to comply with the Voting Rights Act.
The Latino Coalition for Fair Redistricting, backed by the Democratic Party, had originally wanted eight Latino districts, but the reality of the 2020 census, which many believe undercounted Latinos and resulted in Arizona not receiving a 10th congressional district, made that goal too difficult
Neuberg has argued that other factors besides the desires of the coalition and Native Americans must get taken into account. But she’s repeatedly urged the commission to boost the voting-age population of minorities in non-VRA districts when it doesn’t affect other criteria, especially when the movement of district lines adds more white residents.
4. Competitiveness drives decisions
In the macro sense, the concept of competitiveness — and lack of it — was the commission’s biggest source of friction. The commission defines competitiveness by a formula that examines nine key statewide elections since 2018, and measures the chances that districts are not so lopsided that either Republicans or Democrats could win.
The congressional and legislative districts grew less competitive and more Republican-leaning after the Oct. 28 approval of official draft maps and a month of public hearings. The previous legislative map, for example, had six districts in the competitive range, while the latest map has five. Arizona has 30 legislative districts in all.
More competition could result in better candidates and more bipartisan cooperation, according to Democrats. Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, told the commission in a presentation earlier this month that too much competition made governing more difficult.
As the commission’s website explains, the changes to the congressional district that affected the competitiveness balance included moving Sun City Grand into what would be Congressional District 9. It also “united” Tempe in Congressional District 4, split Casa Grande between districts 2 and 6, and incorporated “more communities of interest.”
Deliberations and adjustments in the last days of the commission focused on jockeying mainly between Lerner and York, with refereeing by Neuberg.
As the debate continued on the congressional map on Tuesday, Lerner proposed changes requested by Glendale Mayor Jerry Weiers asking to put a section of Glendale between 43rd and 75th avenues, and between Northern and Glendale avenues, into Congressional District 3, where it was in the Oct. 28 draft map. Weiers wrote that Latinos in that part of Glendale would be better represented in that district, which, like Congressional District 7, is majority Latino.
York focused on keeping East Valley retirement communities like Mesa’s Leisure World together.
Lerner said the changes have made the draft congressional districts less competitive, noting that draft CD 2 was at one time in the competitive range. After Monday’s 3-2 vote on the latest changes to that map, CD-2 is now a solidly Republican district, falling just outside the range of competitiveness.
Those changes were made to satisfy Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, who had asked for the removal of rural areas including New River from Congressional District 8 “because she felt it was creating incompatibilities,” Neuberg said. She acknowledged that created a “more extreme CD8.”
Lerner responded that if that was true, the commission failed to take Gallego’s suggestions for draft Congressional District 1, which she felt would have improved competitiveness. Neuberg responded that those borders were changed to include more urban areas of Phoenix.
“We had a sweet spot in incorporating the very important information for Mayor Kate without doing significant detriment to the other communities of interest,” Neuberg said.
5. What happens next?
Neuberg has said from the start she wanted a consensus on the final maps and hoped to avoid being the tiebreaker who benefits just one side. That seemed less possible Tuesday.
The panel continued to deliberate and fine-tune the maps through Tuesday night, focusing on the congressional map for most of the day.
The commissioners viewed a new draft congressional map just before they adjourned. Douglas Johnson of National Demographics Corporation explained some of the changes made over the day based on the commissioners’ suggestions. Among them: Bisbee and Douglas were added to Congressional District 7. An “arm” of District 7 in Tucson was extended east and north. A neighborhood in Mesa along Alma School Road was moved into Congressional District 4. All of Gilbert is now in Congressional District 5.
The changes affected the competitiveness of four districts and made the Republican-leaning districts 1 and 6 slightly more competitive. Commissioner Mehl told The Arizona Republic they were now too competitive, as far as Republicans were concerned.
The Democrats on the panel weren’t happy, either.
“We don’t like it … but we were being told ‘no’ on everything we wanted to do,” Lerner said, adding that Democrats would have preferred a version that Neuberg rejected. “We tried to make the best out of a bad situation. And I do feel this was a bad situation, but it’s where we are.”
She expressed pessimism about the legislative deliberations to come Wednesday. The latest version of that map shows only five competitive districts, down from the six in the Oct. 28 map.
“We’re going backwards,” she said.
The commissioners still have plenty of work to do on the legislative map before voting on it. Nothing in state law requires the commission to vote for final maps Wednesday, however, and in theory, the panel could schedule new deliberation days.
The Arizona Secretary of State’s Office has advised the commission that if they don’t approve final maps by early January, the delay may negatively affect the 2022 election cycle.
If the commission has voted on both the congressional and legislative maps by Wednesday, officials with the state’s 15 counties will have seven days to make minor, “administrative” changes to ensure apartment complexes and political precincts aren’t split, according to the IRC’s legal team.
The commission’s mapping team then gets seven days to incorporate those adjustments into the official maps, and the team has a deadline of 21 days after approval to finalize the maps. On the 25th day after the final vote, the commission will conduct a public meeting to affirm that the county’s adjustments were strictly administrative. The day after that, the commission will transmit the final maps to the Secretary of State’s Office for certification.
It’s still possible that the map-drawing process might not end then. Aggrieved groups could file lawsuits based on alleged failures to adhere to state law or the Voting Rights Act, and depending on the strength of their arguments could force a delay in the state adopting the maps. The last scheduled final map public meeting is slated for 9 a.m. Wednesday at the Kimpton Palomar Hotel at 2 E. Jefferson St. in downtown Phoenix.