Like a beater work truck chugging through the desert, Arizona's Independent Redistricting Committee (IRC) has been carefully navigating a road of stumps toward a new set of Congressional and legislative maps for several months.
On Tuesday, Dec. 20, the Arizona IRC--made up of two Republicans, two Democrats, and one Independent-- approved a set of new maps that include four Congressional districts with a Republican edge, two districts that lean Democrat, and three that should be competitive.
The number of competitive districts vs the number of safe districts for either party had been a bone of contention among Commission members as well as across the state--with Democrats pushing for more competitive districts and Republicans fighting to hold their advantage. As late as Monday, the two Republican IRC members were " alleging gerrymandering by the Democratic IRC members and complaining about placement of Republican voting blocks.
The passage of the Congressional maps was relatively straightforward, according to IRC watchdog and Democratic Party activist Mohur Sidhwa, who characterized yesterday's meeting as "stunning." Sidhwa, who witnessed the final vote and attended more than 25 other IRC meetings, remarked that the legislative map vote surprised everyone.
In the first vote, Mathis and McNulty voted for the maps, Herrera abstained, and Stertz and Freeman voted "no." Stertz, who took unusually long to cast his vote, according to Sidhwa, then asked for a second vote. After a short recess to determine the process for a second vote, IRC attorney Mary O'Grady said another vote could be taken if a new motion was made. McNulty made a motion for another vote. Mathis and McNulty again voted for the maps, Democrat Herrera and Republican Freeman voted "no", and Republican Stertz surprised all in attendance by voting with the Democrat and the Independent to approve the legislative maps, a true bipartisan vote.
To the world, Arizona is a firebrand red state solidly controlled by Republicans Governor Jan Brewer, Attorney General Tom Horne, and recently recalled Senate President Russell Pearce. Over-the-top legislation, passed under Pearce's purview, gave Arizona an extremist reputation nationwide. SB1070, the now-infamous "papers please" anti-immigrant legislation; HB2281, the anti-Latino legislation targeting Ethnic Studies classes for elimination; and politically motivated court cases challenging the federal government, as well as local governments painted the picture of a right-wing state.
In the 2010 elections, Republicans swept Arizona's state government, winning the entire executive branch and building insurmountable majorities in both houses of the Legislature.
How could all of this happen when voter registration rolls show a state roughly split in thirds between Republicans, Independents, and Democrats -- with a smattering of registered Greens and Libertarians? Gerrymandering.
The IRC-- created by voters in 2000--represented a move to take redistricting out of the hands of the Arizona Legislature. Many hoped that the IRC's new maps would better represent the state's voter mix.
Arizona is on the cutting edge of the redistricting process, according to Sidhwa. By far most states still allow their state legislatures to draw up maps every 10 years.
The IRC's mission is to redraw the lines of Arizona's Congressional and legislative districts based upon the most recent census and several factors, including maintenance of roughly equal populations in each district, the federal Voting Rights Act, district shape, geographical features, respect for communities of interest and political competitiveness.
The IRC soldiered on through months of contentious public meetings and fought off court challenges by the Republican-controlled state government. This fall, Brewer, Horne, and Arizona's Republican-dominated Legislature made national headlines when they charged the IRC Chair Mathis with gross misconduct. In a transparently political move, they said that Mathis broke the state's Open Meeting Laws and removed her from office -- thus stalling the entire redistricting process soon after a draft set of maps was released.
In mid-November, the Arizona Supreme Court reinstated Mathis. AZCentral reported "... the court found that Brewer's Nov. 1 letter notifying Mathis of her removal 'does not demonstrate 'substantial neglect of duty, gross misconduct in office or inability to discharge the duties of office.'' Those are the criteria for removal."
Since the reinstatement of Mathis, the IRC met as often as possible, according to Sidhwa. By approving the maps on Dec. 20, the commission met its self-imposed deadline of Christmas to finalize the maps, which will determine which candidates run in what districts in the 2012 election.
Inadvertently, Horne's aggressive fight against the IRC chair and the independent redistricting process may have strengthened the process, Sidhwa says. By taking the battle "up through the judicial chain, it solidified and validated the process" because the Arizona State Supreme Court ruled that the IRC is truly independent and not subject to the authority of elected officials.
"We have precedence now," Sidhwa says. Her hope is that other states will follow Arizona's lead and create independent redistricting commissions to redraw voting boundaries.
Arizona is one of a handful of states whose redistricting maps must be approved by the US Department of Justice. This review could take another month or two.
Pamela Powers Hannley blogs at http://tucsoncitizen.com/tucson-progressive/.