It is often said the government that is closest to the people serves them best, and one state senator wants to help lawmakers get a bit closer to the people by reducing the size of their districts.
Arizona has some of the most populous legislative districts in the country. With an estimated population of about 7.4 million, Arizona’s 30 legislative districts have an average population of 246,000. As of 2019, Arizona had the eight most populous state Senate districts in the United States, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Most states have more House districts than Senate districts, which gives smaller constituencies to House members. But in Arizona, each legislative district selects two House representatives at large, meaning they have the same number of constituents as their Senate counterparts. That gives Arizona the second most populous House districts in the country, behind only California.
Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, wants to change that. Mesnard’s SCR1005 would refer a measure to the 2022 ballot asking voters to not only expand the Arizona House of Representatives to 90 members from its current 60, but it would carve each Senate district into three separate House districts.
With 90 individual House districts, each representative would have about 82,000 constituents. That would give Arizona the 12th most populous House districts in the U.S, nearly on par with the state’s rank as the 14th most populous state.
Mesnard said smaller House districts would be more democratic. The more constituents a lawmaker has, the less connected he or she is to each of them, and the more they have to appeal to the masses rather than smaller communities and neighborhoods.
“I’m not proposing something that radical,” Mesnard said. “Constituents deserve to not just be one in a sea of people. If we can shrink the constituency, they’re better off.”
In addition to giving people more responsive representation, Mesnard said smaller House districts would reduce the influence of money and special interests in the elections for those seats.
Mesnard isn’t the first Arizona lawmaker in recent years to attempt to split up the state’s gargantuan House districts. Sen. T.J. Shope, a Coolidge Republican who was elected to the Senate in November after eight years in the House, has in the past sponsored legislation that would have asked voters to split each House district in half, leaving Arizona with 60 House members but with each representing a distinct district.
Shope was never able to even get a committee hearing for his proposals. He said it may have been too foreign a concept for many lawmakers. And the state wasn’t far removed from the last redistricting process, so many people may not have wanted to deal with the issue again.
“I think it was more or less just fear of the unknown than anything else,” he said.
Mesnard, a former House speaker who is now in his second term in the Senate, is a far more experienced lawmaker than Shope was when he made his proposal, which Shope suggested could help this proposal’s fate.
Whether Mesnard’s plan will fare better than Shope’s remains to be seen. Senate President Karen Fann assigned SCR1005 to two committees, Appropriations and Government, putting extra obstacles in its way. Mesnard acknowledged that the multiple committee assignments will make it harder to pass. But if he can at least get a hearing in one of the two committees, it will at least help him start the conversation.
“I’m optimistic I’ll get a hearing in one of them. Whether I get a hearing in both of them I don’t know,” Mesnard said.
The 90-district plan wouldn’t go into effect until the 2032 election, after Arizona redistricts for the 2030 Census, so there’s plenty of time to try again if it doesn’t pass this year.
However, if lawmakers want to have new districts in place by 2032, they would be well advised to send Mesnard’s proposal to the ballot sooner rather than later because they’ll have to replace the current House of Representatives building, which Mesnard said probably can’t accommodate offices for 30 more lawmakers.
“If you’re going to build a building, you need to think about that now,” he said.
Mesnard’s plan would have another interesting by-product aside from necessitating a new building for the House: It would eliminate a popular electoral strategy known as a “single shot” that legislative candidates use in districts predominantly controlled by the other party. Rather than field candidates for both House seats in a district, parties regularly put up one candidate and attempt to pick off the weaker of the two candidates from the other party.
The single shot strategy is more closely associated with Democrats, though both parties had successes with it in 2020. Democrats Jennifer Pawlik and Judy Schwiebert won House races in Republican districts — Pawlik represents Mesnard’s Chandler-based district — while Republican Joel John won a seat in a heavily Democratic district that stretches from southern Arizona into the western reaches of Maricopa County.
Pawlik was skeptical about Mesnard’s proposal, though not, she said, because it would eliminate her ability to run a single-shot campaign. Though Pawlik said Mesnard raised a good point about the lawmakers being less connected to their constituents in larger districts, she worried about how much it would cost to put up a new building and pay the new staffers that the House would have to hire for the additional 30 lawmakers.
“There’s just so many other things that I think we should be spending the money on in Arizona,” Pawlik said.