IRC picks mapping consultant in split vote over Dem objections

By: - May 4, 2021 6:36 pm
Arizona redistricting flag

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The mapping consultant for the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission brings a wealth of experience in drawing district boundaries but also a history of drawing and supporting districts that Democrats say disadvantaged Latino voters.

By a 3-2 vote, with the commission’s two Democrats dissenting, the IRC selected Timmons Group, a Richmond, Virginia engineering and technology company, to serve as its mapping consultant. Timmons submitted a joint proposal with National Demographics Corporation, which served as the mapping consultant for Arizona’s 2001 commission and has done redistricting work across the country.

All three firms that sought to be the commission’s mapping consultant had partisan baggage, with Republicans vociferously opposing HaystaqDNA and Democrats raising concerns with Timmons and Taylor English Decisions. But it was Timmons, and specifically its partner NDC, that was the focus of the Democrats’ opposition over what they described as a Republican firm with a history of drawing discriminatory maps, citing instances in which redistricting plans drawn by NDC and its president, Douglas Johnson, were rejected by judges or otherwise found to be lacking in Latino representation.

The U.S. Department of Justice rejected the legislative district map that NDC drew with Arizona’s first redistricting commission in 2001 on the grounds that several districts didn’t provide Latino voters with enough of an opportunity to elect the candidates of their choice. Arizona at the time was still subject to a provision of the Voting Rights Act that required the DOJ to approve all changes to its election and voting laws, a process known as preclearance.

Outside of Arizona, a judge in 2018 found that a redistricting map for Kern County, California, deprived Latino voters “of an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice.” Johnson testified in support of the maps as an expert witness for the county, but a judge found that his testimony was “insufficient to negate the compelling evidence of socioeconomic disparities between Latinos and non-Hispanic whites in Kern County.”

And in North Carolina, a judge in 2019 threw out Johnson’s testimony in defense of the state’s legislative districts, ruling that he inaccurately testified that the districts were substantially different than those drawn by Thomas Hofeller, a Republican redistricting guru known for gerrymandering. Hofeller’s extensive files became public after his 2018 death. 

Johnson and the Timmons Group declined to comment on the criticism, citing ongoing contract discussions with the redistricting commission.

On Tuesday, the commissioners spent about four and a half hours behind closed doors to discuss and score the three proposals from the consultants. 

When they returned, independent Chairwoman Erika Neuberg asked for a motion to award the consultant contract to Timmons. The Democratic commissioners quickly made it clear that the decision wouldn’t be unanimous.

Democratic Commissioner Shereen Lerner made a point of saying that she believed the commissioners worked well together, were respectful of each other and did their due diligence in vetting the consultants. But she opposed the selection of Timmons Group and NDC, though she didn’t elaborate on her reasons.

“I will for the record say I’m not in agreement with the final decision that was made as part of that process. I didn’t feel we followed — I appreciate the process, but I’m just going to say I don’t agree with the final decision that was reached,” she said.

Lerner added that she believed the contract should go to HaystaqDNA, which she felt would be fair and balanced. 

Republican Commissioner Doug York reminded his colleagues that the commissioners chose to use the state procurement process, with its rigorous scoring system that guides the decision-making process. He said he felt Timmons was the best company for the job.

“From my standpoint, I felt that the Timmons proposal was the most independent proposal that we received,” he said.

Democratic Commissioner Derrick Watchman echoed Lerner’s comments, and said he wasn’t happy with the outcome of the process, including the scoring system. 

David Mehl, the commission’s other Republican member, said Timmons did a good job of responding to concerns and clarifying the issues that critics raised. He noted the firms have extensive experience with redistricting. He also pointed out that NDC’s congressional map received unanimous approval from the IRC in 2001, and the commission approved its legislative map on a 4-1 vote, which he said showed a history of fostering consensus.

Mehl acknowledged that the public hasn’t been able to see the proposals the three firms submitted or the responses they provided. But he noted that those will eventually become public.

“I hope the public will have a much greater appreciation for the selection we’re making when they have a chance to review those materials,” Mehl said.

Like York, Neuberg emphasized the experience that Timmons Group and NDC brought to the commission. And while HaystaqDNA and Q2 Data and Research, a company it partnered with for the IRC proposal, are already under contract to work on redistricting in California, Neuberg said Timmons and NDC would be able to devote more attention to Arizona.

“I like the idea that this mapping firm is going to be solely focused on our project, in addition to their robust experience. When you have … hundreds of projects, to think that none of them are going to have complications I think is unrealistic,” Neuberg said.

NDC announced in mid-March that it had signed its 50th local government as a redistricting client, and said on Facebook two weeks later that it had signed its 60th client. A list of clients on NDC’s website shows dozens of cities, counties, community college districts and other local entities, but no other states.

While Democrats trained their fire on Timmons and NDC, and to a lesser extent Taylor English Decisions, Republicans bombarded the commission with comments opposing HaystaqDNA. The firm’s co-founder and vice president were both part of Strategic Telemetry, which was the mapping consultant for the 2011 IRC. Republicans were outraged 10 years ago when the commission selected the Democratic firm, which worked for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and had little experience in redistricting at the time.

Critics also raised issues with Taylor English Decisions over CEO Earl Ehrhart’s history of comments defending the rights of male college students accused of rape, and his leadership of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization famous for drafting model legislation that GOP lawmakers sponsor in statehouses across the country.

The IRC opted to use the state procurement process to select a mapping consultant, in which the commissioners created an objective scoring system for applicants before they were permitted to see the three proposals. That scoring system is supposed to determine who receives the contract. The procurement process also required that the commission conduct most of the selection process behind closed doors in executive session.

Last week, the commission held off on making a decision, opting to give the three applicants extra time to respond to the concerns and criticism the IRC had received about them. Members of the public also got a few extra days to voice their opinions.

Correction: A previous version of this story inaccurately stated that Doug Johnson helped draw districts in Kern County, California, that a judge rejected, and for a school district in West Contra Costa County, California, that the district stipulated in court would likely not survive a lawsuit alleging that it lacked sufficient Latino representation. Johnson was an expert witness for Kern County but did not draw the disputed map. The West Contra Costa County Unified School District stipulated that its at-large election system would likely be thrown out in court, not the district-based system that replaced it.

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Jeremy Duda previously served as the Mirror's associate Editor. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”