Redistricting mapping consultant defends work on Latino districts

By: - June 10, 2021 8:15 am
Arizona redistricting flag

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A mapping consultant selected by the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission says critics mischaracterized some of its past work, including on the Arizona legislative districts it helped draw 20 years ago.

Last month, the commission selected Timmons Group, a Richmond, Virginia engineering and technology company, as its mapping consultant. Timmons has partnered with National Demographics Corporation, which served as the mapping consultant for Arizona’s first redistricting commission in 2001. Before it selected its mapping consultant, the AIRC gave each of the three applicants an opportunity to respond to the criticism they’d received. 

Democrats decried the selection, pointing to a track record from NDC that they said showed a history of disadvantaging Latino voters, and one of their chief objections dates back to the U.S. Justice Department’s rejection of the Arizona legislative map that NDC drew when it worked for the AIRC in 2001. At the time, Arizona was subject to a provision of the Voting Rights Act requiring the state to get federal approval, known as “preclearance,” for redistricting maps and other changes to voting and election laws.

Michael Wiley, the director of business development for Timmons Group, said in the company’s response letter to the commission that the issues that led the U.S. Department of Justice to reject the 2001 legislative map were the result of requests by an organization that lobbied the AIRC on behalf of minority voters. 

The Voting Rights Act requires that Arizona provide minority voters with enough districts where they have the opportunity to elect the candidates of their choice. Wiley wrote that the coalition of minority groups that worked with the 2001 AIRC asked the commission to dilute minority voting strength in some legislative districts in order to bolster another district. 

Wiley said spokespeople for two groups that were part of that coalition publicly praised the commission’s work and the coalition pledged to voice support for the legislative to the DOJ, which relied heavily on the opinions of minority advocacy groups when deciding whether to grant preclearance. But after the AIRC submitted its maps to the feds for approval, the coalition changed its position, he said.

“The 2001 Commission had a map before it that would have easily passed DoJ review. But the minority coalition clearly asked the Commission to adopt a risky map. In retrospect, of course it was a mistake to agree to the coalition’s request, but the Commission’s reason for doing so was entirely laudable,” Wiley wrote. 

Wiley said critics were off the mark on other redistricting efforts NDC was associated with in other states, as well. 

For example, the Arizona Democratic Party, National Democratic Redistricting Committee and League of Women Voters of Arizona critiqued NDC and its president, Doug Johnson, for saying “that it would not be possible to draw two Latino-majority districts in the city, despite the data that indicated otherwise,” in Redwood City, California. Wiley countered that activists using mapping tools provided by NDC had the same issue, and that the firm was later able to find a way to create a second majority Latino district.

Critics said the firm drew district lines for the West Contra Costa County Unified School District in northern California that had to be redrawn, and that NDC spent a year working on a map without a majority Latino district. They pointed to a stipulation the school district entered as part of a lawsuit acknowledging that the plaintiffs in the case would “likely prevail” if their voting rights challenge went to trial. But the lawsuit challenged the school district’s at-large elections, which often mathematically disadvantages minority groups, not districts drawn by NDC. The implementation of those districts resolved the lawsuit.

Opponents noted that a judge ruled that Johnson’s testimony in a lawsuit over district lines in Kern County, Calif., was “insufficient to negate the compelling evidence of socioeconomic disparities between Latinos and non-Hispanic whites.” Wiley pointed out that Johnson’s firm didn’t actually draw the disputed maps: Johnson served as an expert witness for the county.

And while critics slammed Johnson because a judge threw out his 2019 testimony in defense of North Carolina’s legislative districts, which were drawn by Thomas Hofeller, a Republican redistricting guru known for gerrymandering, Wiley said only one of Johnson’s seven points were rejected by the judge due to “an admitted coding error.” Wiley noted that the state brought in Johnson as an expert witness long after the districts were drawn. The judge ruled that Johnson inaccurately testified that the districts were substantially different than Hofeller’s. 

“NDC has worked on nearly 400 districting and redistricting maps, and out of those many hundreds of adopted maps, the (2001 Arizona legislative map) is the only one in our forty years which was ever overturned by a Judge or by the U.S. Department of Justice,” Wiley wrote, adding that no judge has ever ruled that an NDC-drawn map harmed the voting rights of Latinos or any other protected class.

Steve Lynn, the independent chairman of the 2001 commission, and Joshua Hall, one of the two Democratic commissioners, echoed Wiley’s description of the preclearance issues. Lynn told the Arizona Mirror that the commissioners knew they were taking a calculated risk, but were told by the minority coalition that it would back the AIRC up when the map went to DOJ for preclearance, only for the coalition members to change their minds.

“We knew going into the preclearance process we were taking a risk to not pass, and the reason we were taking a risk to not pass is we had taken the percentages down, as far as we were concerned, about as far as we could go and still have effective minority districts by DOJ definition,” he said.

Lynn and Wiley both noted that members of the minority coalition praised the AIRC when it passed its legislative map in 2001. A transcript of the commission’s Oct. 14, 2001, meeting shows Aaron Kizer, an attorney for the coalition, telling the AIRC, “We have nine (minority) districts. You lived up to your end of the bargain. We’ll live up to our end.” 

Jose Solarez, who represented the Gila River Indian Community, told the commissioners, “Thank you for paying attention to the needs of minorities.” 

No representative of the coalition offered any criticism. 

Andi Minkoff, the other Democratic commissioner, said she couldn’t recall whether the commission diluted minority voting strength at the minority coalition’s request. She did recall that she met with members of the coalition after it submitted a proposed map that heavily packed minority voters into a handful of districts and urged them to take a different approach that spread out Latino voters into other districts in order to make the map more competitive. 

Minkoff has long been critical of the 2001 commission’s legislative map, which she believes didn’t create enough competitive districts.

Johnson emphasized the members of the coalition supported the map in open commission meetings. But afterward, the group proposed changes to district boundaries in southern Arizona that would have enhanced Latino voting power but eliminated a competitive seat, which the AIRC didn’t make. That, he said, helped form the basis for the coalition’s legal challenge to the map. 

The 2001 AIRC faced years of lawsuits over its maps. The minority coalition sued over what it deemed an insufficient number of competitive districts. In 2009, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that the commission properly considered the competitiveness requirement in the state constitution. 

Others have far different recollections than Hall and Lynn about how the disputed legislative districts came into being, including Paul Eckstein, an attorney who represented the minority coalition through nearly a decade of litigation. Eckstein said the coalition didn’t support the dilution of minority districts. 

“What the minority coalition said … is we would not challenge the map if they added Latinos to, we’ll call it the Apache Junction-Pinal County district. So, we challenged the whole map,” he said. “That put the whole map in jeopardy.”

Former Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, a member of the minority coalition, said the group did, in fact, support spreading out Latino voters for the sake of creating more competitiveness — to a degree. But the commission went further in that regard than the coalition wanted and ended up weakening the minority districts too much, she said. 

It was the Arizona Democratic Party, not the minority coalition, that was adamant about making the districts more competitive, Wilcox recalled. 

“We didn’t mind, as long as they didn’t reach too far into our districts. But they reached too far into our districts and they were diluting our districts too much,” Wilcox said. “We gave them an inch and they took a mile.” 

And Maricopa County Supervisor Steve Gallardo, who was a member of the minority coalition at the time, also disputed Lynn and Johnson’s recollection. He said the coalition supported an earlier version of the map, before the AIRC made changes that he says weakened minority districts. 

Gallardo said the coalition was a loose grouping of people who didn’t always see eye to eye: There were some members who wanted to dilute minority districts further for the sake of competitiveness, but the majority of the coalition disagreed. 

The Arizona Constitution establishes six criteria for redistricting. The first is that the AIRC must follow the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act. The sixth is competitiveness, which comes with the caveat that the commission consider competitiveness only when it won’t conflict with the other five criteria.

Gallardo said minority voting strength and competitiveness are competing interests, and it’s hard to strengthen one without weakening the other.

“It’s a balancing act. Competitiveness is part of the criteria when looking at a map. But I think first and foremost is protecting majority-minority districts,” he said.

Then-state Sen. Pete Rios, a Hispanic Democrat whose district would be one of the five that DOJ objected to in preclearance, indicated at the time that the lack of competitiveness would hurt Latinos. He told the Arizona Republic at the time that having nine minority districts “doesn’t mean a hill of beans” because Latinos still wouldn’t have the power to control anyone’s agenda at the legislature. 

Lynn emphasized that, regardless of what issues people might have with the 2001 maps, NDC wasn’t the actual decision-maker when it came to district boundaries.

“NDC never drew a map on their own. Never. They only drew maps that we directed them to draw,” he said. 

Bruce Adelson, a redistricting consultant who led the DOJ civil rights team that rejected Arizona’s legislative map in 2002, said he has no recollection of the arrangement that Wiley, Lynn and Hall described, and was skeptical that someone wouldn’t have mentioned it to him at the time. 

But Adelson echoed Lynn’s comment that it was the commissioners who were making the decisions, not the mapping consultants. He also defended NDC and Johnson, with whom he’s often worked closely in the years since he left DOJ, saying he’s never known them to be discriminatory toward Latinos or any other group protected by the VRA. Had anyone said so in 2001, he said, DOJ would have looked into it.

“That is not my understanding of Doug and NDC at all. Quite the contrary,” Adelson said. 

Unlike most of the critics of the 2001 commission, Gallardo found fault with the mapping consultants, not just with the decisions the AIRC made regarding minority districts. 

“I think NDC is biased to some extent,” he said. “Democrats and … minority communities are going to have to be on their toes. They’re going to have to be on this commission, they’re going to have to continue to monitor every step.”

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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.”