07/03/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Arizona Immigration Law: Some Things You Probably Didn't Know About Arizona Politics

As a resident of Arizona, and observer of Arizona's political scene for the last 30 years, I have followed the national furor about the Arizona immigration law with great interest. There are a number of things about this law, and the way it came to be, that have not all been reflected in national reports thereof. I offer these for your consideration.

Sequence of Events.

Public Attention Was Elsewhere. Throughout the entire winter and spring, the public was focused not on immigration, but on state budget issues. On a percentage basis the Arizona budget is even more seriously out of whack than even California's finances. Throughout the spring, the legislature focused on draconian cuts in state spending. In the late spring, they agreed to refer a temporary sales tax increase to the voters. This will be voted on May 18. A discussion of these issues, not of immigration, dominated news coverage and public discourse. And during the protracted budgetary discussions which ended only with final passage in mid-March, all other items were off the table.

A Precipitating Event.
Two weeks after passage of the budget, a single event brought the issue of immigration to the fore: Robert Krentz, a rancher from southern Arizona was shot and killed, presumably by an illegal trespasser, on his border ranch. For many, this framed the immigration issue in terms of danger. While it is likely that the perpetrator was involved in drugs or smuggling (groups who are known to carry weapons) rather than manual workers who comprise the vast majority of illegal immigration (and who are not known to carry weapons), this distinction could easily be lost in the wave of public sympathy and outrage at a senseless murder.

Three weeks after the Krentz murder, the Governor had SB1070 on her desk. Until the Krentz murder, public discussion of SB1070 was only background noise to the intense discussion of draconian budget cuts and legislative machinations about the sales tax referral. While the murder was certainly not the sole cause of the legislation (its sponsors had begun their efforts long before that), it did contribute to an environment where the argument "We have to do something!" became compelling.

There is concern about the immigration in Arizona, but only slightly more than in the country as a whole. In light of the recency of the Krentz murder, the difference between the 70% level of Arizona support for the bill measured immediately after the bill's passage and the 51% national support for the bill measured by Gallup a few days later does not impress me as particularly noteworthy. Especially since the former number was measured in a single question robo-poll (conducted without interviewers) immediately after passage and without much public understanding or discussion of the bill's provisions. And even this much-cited poll of Arizonans has yet to be replicated.

Immigration is clearly a salient issue nationally, and Arizona's status as ground zero for illegal immigration has provided the state's residents with ample cause to be more concerned about this issue than most Americans. Yet, the evidence is that Arizonans are only moderately more focused on the issue than is the rest of the country. And neither this fact, nor any other, represents a considered judgment about the components of this specific legislation. Most likely the much of response to this question represents an appeal to "Do something!" about this intractable issue. And sitting on ground zero, Arizonans are probably more sensitive and impatient than the rest of the country with the fact that the federal government has done very little to deal with the issue.

Republican Primary Politics

Much of the political support for the bill can be attributed to Republican Primary politics.

Governor Brewer, who acceded to the office upon the resignation of Governor Janet Napolitano to become Homeland Security Secretary, is engaged in a fight for her political life. She has been challenged in the Republican gubernatorial primary by several challengers, all well to her political right. Failure to sign this law could well have been political suicide for her in a Republican primary.

Senator John McCain also has a primary opponent, J.D. Hayworth, who has attacked him from the far right and focused on the immigration issue. McCain's endorsement of this draconian proposal represents a departure from the more moderate "comprehensive immigration reform" stance which he has espoused for years. Fear of J.D. Hayworth in the Republican primary is the only plausible explanation for his shift.

These two facts are simple and easy to understand. Understanding the composition of the Arizona legislature and how it came to be, however, requires a more intricate explanation.

The Arizona legislature is not representative of the entire electorate, but is representative of Republican primary voters. Recent history provides ample evidence of this disconnect. In recent years, the public has passed, by initiative, numerous tax increases mandating increased public spending in education and social services that the legislature had consistently refused to pass. For years, the legislature would repeal or revise these initiatives to eviscerate their intent. This was enough of a pattern that several years ago the voters passed a "Voter Protection Act" constitutional amendment which made it virtually impossible for the legislature to undermine the intent of voter-passed initiatives.

How could there be such a disconnect between the legislature's perspective and that of the people who elected them? Prior to 2000, one might have sought an explanation in legislatively gerrymandered districts. But before the 2000 re-apportionment, Arizona voters passed by initiative (and over the objections of a majority of the legislature) a redistricting bill which established an independent commission charged with drawing district boundaries fairly. No one has seriously contested that this commission failed to do this.

But various legal requirements, however, so constrained their actions, that the result was not terribly different from the previous legislatively gerrymandered districts.

The culprit is to be found in a set of provisions in an otherwise benign and widely supported legislation now over four decades old.

The voting rights act of 1965. This landmark legislation passed while Lyndon Johnson was President has two principal provisions. The first set of requirements is unassailably positive; it outlaws discrimination in voter registration procedures. The second set of provisions, which is only operative in the 20 states which once had a history of racial discrimination, has produced invidious and unintended consequence. These prohibit the drawing of district lines so as to dilute minority voting strength in any district. The effect of this requirement, as it has been implemented in those states, is that districts end up packing as many minorities (in Arizona this mostly means Hispanic voters) in to a number of extremely safe Democratic districts. In a state like Arizona which has only a slight Republican voter registration edge, this virtually ensures that the vast majority of the remaining districts will not only be Republican, they will be safe Republican seats.

What's the net result of all of this? If the preponderance of legislative districts are extremely safe Republican seats, that means Republican primary winners are assured election, no matter how extreme their views. And the primary electorate reflects the more extreme members of each party (left leaning in the case of Democrats, right leaning in the case of Republicans). But, given the dense packing of minority Democrats into a few districts (as required by the "Voting Rights Act"), the Republicans are virtually guaranteed a perpetual majority. And given the dynamics of primary voting, this turns the legislature over an ever far right group of ideologues.

This isn't just manifest in issues like immigration, it also is reflected in a wide range of issues: hostility towards public education (charter schools, tuition vouchers for private schools), the right to carry concealed weapons, annual tax cuts, social program cuts, and the like.

And nothing in Arizona politics is likely to change this for the foreseeable future. Indeed, another political reform may have contributed to this process. Again by citizen initiative, and again over the objections of the then-legislative majority, the state's voters passed a Clean Elections bill which provides the most comprehensive system of publicly funded campaigns in America. The intent was to be democratic (small "D") and remove the invidious influence of large campaign contributions. The unintended consequence of this, however, is that it undermined the relationship between candidates, not only with their respective parties, but between the business-wing of the Republican Party and Republican elected officials. This business-wing of the Republican Party had traditionally had a moderating effect on electoral politics in the state, particularly on social issues (such as immigration). Public funding undermined that relationship.

Since the rules of the game in the state have included publicly funded elections, the legislature has each year become more ideological and further to the right than before. As with redistricting, absent a change in the rules of the game, there is little reason to see that this will change in the foreseeable future.

One irony of this is that with continued in-migration from other parts of the country, Arizona's population has increasingly approached becoming a microcosm of the country. Were John McCain not a home state candidate, the state would have been in play in 2008. The Republican voter registration edge is only a few points, and it is dwarfed by the increasing percentage of Independents. President Obama's team clearly recognizes this shift: he's been here three times as President.