Does more — or less — political competition make for better government? Lawmakers sound off on maps

·6 min read
The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission on Oct. 28, 2021. From left to right: Shereen Lerner, Derrick Watchman, Erika Neuberg, David Mehl, Douglas York.
The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission on Oct. 28, 2021. From left to right: Shereen Lerner, Derrick Watchman, Erika Neuberg, David Mehl, Douglas York.

More political competition between Republicans and Democrats running for the Arizona Legislature means more choices for voters.

Or maybe it results in gridlock at the Capitol and a lopsided advantage for one party makes for better governance.

Those were the competing arguments from Republican and Democratic leaders of the Legislature who presented their visions Thursday for the state's new political maps.

Both sides hope to gain an edge in power for the next 10 years. But both are also hampered by mathematical and legal realities in the delicate balancing act of creating new districts that give weight to a variety of considerations required by the Arizona Constitution.

Voters approved the Independent Redistricting Commission system in 2000 with the goal of taking politics out of the once-a-decade redrawing of legislative and congressional maps. But Arizona law allows the state House and Senate to make recommendations on the process that "shall" be considered by the five commissioners, which they heard Thursday.

The commission begins its final decision meeting phase on Dec. 6, and aims to hand over completed maps to the state by Dec. 22.

Appearing at a virtual business meeting with the commissioners and staff, state Sen. Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, and Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Phoenix, the minority leaders of their chambers, represented the Democrats.

House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, spoke for the Legislature's Republican caucuses. Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, did not attend the virtual meeting.

What Democrats want from the maps

Rios and Bolding said they want to see more competition among Arizona's 30 legislative and nine congressional districts, which would require evening out partisan voters in each district so that either party's candidates conceivably could win. The commission defines the concept of competitiveness as a measure of Republican and Democratic votes in key statewide races over the past three election cycles, plus the number of party wins for those races.

The current draft legislative map, which faces changes in the final map process, has six of 30 districts within the competitive range. Of the remaining districts, 13 lean Republican and 11 lean Democratic.

The draft congressional maps contain four competitive districts out of nine; the remainder are split 3-2 with a Republican advantage.

Both maps contain the same amount of competitiveness they have had for the past 10 years

Competitiveness is important, Bolding said, because if a district is slanted Republican or Democratic, "it does not provide a choice" for voters.

"We want to create a state where voters truly feel their voices have been heard," he said. "We know that it's something that's possible."

Neither Bolding nor Rios gave specific details on how they would like the commission to achieve higher competitiveness.

"How that exactly is determined, again, the devil is in the details," Rios said.

The Arizona Constitution gives a lower priority to competitiveness than the five other criteria for the map-drawing process: compactness; following the U.S. Constitution and Voting Rights Act; keeping district populations roughly equal; following geographic boundaries including county and city borders; and keeping "communities of interest" together.

The Constitution states that competitiveness "to the extent practicable, competitive districts should be favored where to do so would create no significant detriment to the other goals."

From a mathematical perspective, Erika Neuberg, the independent chair of the commission, told the Democrats that the problem is often one of "either, or." In other words, increasing competitiveness means sacrificing other criteria.

"It’s not always clear-cut, and there’s a lot of very difficult compromises to be made," she said.

For instance, a proposal by the Democratic Latino Coalition for Fair Redistricting to increase the number of Latino voting districts from seven to eight reduces the number of competitive districts overall.

The 2011 process was marked by infighting by its two Republican and two Democratic commissioners, with independent Chair Colleen Mathis often siding with Democrats.

David Mehl, one of the current Republican commissioners, noted that Democrats in the 2011 process were "overt" with their goal to increase competitiveness from what it had been in the 2000s. So, he asked Bolding and Rios, were the 2011 maps good?

Rios said she wouldn't deem the 2011 maps as the "model" of perfect maps, but said "it could be argued that some of those districts have eventually become competitive to the point where we almost have parity in the Legislature." That hasn't happened since the 1960s, she added.

Before the business meeting, Rios and Bolding sent a letter to the commission criticizing Neuberg for voting "repeatedly" with the Republican commissioners on key issues, such as a submitted map for southern Arizona that includes a new Republican-leaning district.

And echoing a news release from the Arizona Democratic Party, the lawmakers said that state Rep. Vince Leach, R-Saddlebrooke, had hidden his role in creating that map to ensure he would have a safe district for reelection.

Leach didn't respond to messages on social media seeking comment.

What Republicans want from the maps

Bowers, for his part, urged the commission to ignore calls for more competitiveness, saying that in his 30 years "in or around" the Legislature, he's come to believe that governing works best when the balance of Republicans and Democrats is more lopsided.

A lack of competitiveness doesn't create conditions that result in more extreme candidates on either side, as Democrats argue, he said. Instead, more competitive districts actually make governing tougher because "bipartisan coalitions can't form because the partisan stakes are so high, with so little margin," Bowers said.

A Democrat who wants to help a Republican bill would get threatened by his or her party, he said, adding that "wider margins" relieve that problem.

Yet in recent years, as Republicans have maintained a thin majority, they have rarely reached across the aisle. In the divisive politics of the day, many Republican bills are too politically toxic to Democrats to support.

Democratic Commissioner Shereen Lerner pushed back on Bowers' theory.

When the Legislative makeup is closer to 50-50, "it seems like more compromise does occur," she said.

Bowers and Fann also sent a letter to the commission that outlined some specific asks for the final legislative maps, including a request to keep Yavapai County intact and take more care to recognize communities of interest in Maricopa County over desires for competitiveness.

One example given was McCormick Ranch in Scottsdale, which is a "clear community of interest" that is split between two districts on the draft map.

They also suggested revisiting some draft districts that had their populations reduced for "increased competitiveness."

'I want the best and brightest ideas'

Neuberg told The Arizona Republic after the meeting that she thought the lawmakers' input was "helpful," and that she hopes to keep "lines of dialogue" with them open through the final map process this month.

Asked if she felt Leach had done anything wrong in helping to create a map, Neuberg said no.

"I am assuming that the overwhelming majority of (submitted maps) come from a partisan person," she said. "I want the best and brightest ideas. I remain fully confident the five commissioners are acting in good faith and digesting all the information that comes in for the good of our state."

The last public hearings on the draft maps are scheduled for noon Dec. 3, and 10 a.m. Dec. 4. For the commission's December meeting schedule, go to https://irc.az.gov/public-meetings.

Reach the reporter at rstern@arizonarepublic.com or 480-276-3237. Follow him on Twitter @raystern.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona redistricting board hears from Republican, Democratic leaders

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