Redistricting commission hears community concerns, partisan talking points on listening tour
Members of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission hear public testimony during a hearing at the Mesa Convention Center on Aug. 9, 2021. Photo by Jeremy Duda | Arizona Mirror
Florence, the seat of Pinal County, was a fitting place for the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission to begin its statewide listening tour.
Residents of the rapidly growing county have aspired to anchor a congressional district, a hope that’s been dashed now in two consecutive redistricting cycles. Without a major population center, and with the bulk of its growth occurring in the outskirts of the Phoenix metro area, the county in 2011 was instead divvied up between three congressional districts and six legislative districts. Residents of Florence and San Tan Valley vote in the same congressional district as Yuma and Kingman, while Coolidge and Eloy share a congressman with Flagstaff and the Four Corners.
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More than 50 people were waiting by the time commission staffers opened the doors at the historic courthouse — a larger crowd than the AIRC expected, though far smaller than the groups that would pack the rooms at future meetings.
The purpose of the commission’s listening tour was to hear from Arizonans about their “communities of interest,” something the Arizona Constitution tasks the AIRC with keeping intact. But definitions of what that means are varied, and fluid. Communities of interest can be anything from a neighborhood to a group of people who work in the same industry to people who attend the same church or send their kids to the same school. Or they could be groups of people who rely on the same government services or who use the same transportation corridor in their daily commutes.
To make every vote valuable, I believe that the most critical factor is competitiveness.
– Carefree resident Trudy Miller
Several speakers objected to the previous commission sticking their corner of Pinal County into the same legislative district as east Mesa. Others implored the AIRC to keep the Copper Corridor mining area intact. Some wanted the current commission, unlike its predecessor, to avoid splitting up communities like Casa Grande and San Tan Valley.
David Coward, a resident of Gold Canyon, said he was concerned that his community’s transportation needs were overshadowed by those of the larger population centers in the two legislative districts that cover his area.
“With our legislative representation split, we have a minority interest in both districts, and our community is an afterthought,” Coward said. “We need representation at the state and county level that has attention to our community.”
Some speakers at the commission’s meeting in Prescott expressed similar sentiments. The bulk of Yavapai County is in legislative District 1, but much of the Verde Valley is part of a neighboring district that includes Flagstaff, Show Low and Snowflake. To make up for the population loss, District 1 dips into the northern part of Maricopa County, which also didn’t sit well with some attendees.
“We want to keep our small town and our rural flavor, if you will,” said Sedona resident Robert Porter.
Not everyone shared the view that Yavapai County should be self-contained in one legislative district. Others were more than content to let Flagstaff keep areas like Sedona and Cottonwood. Connie Levinson, who didn’t say which city she lives but said she’d resided in the area for 20 years, told the commission, “Prescott really does not fit with the Verde Valley and Flagstaff in terms of community of interest or practicality.”
Some residents of places like Anthem and Cave Creek said they didn’t like being lumped into a legislative district with Yavapai County, telling the commission that they have far more of a connection to the greater Phoenix area than to Prescott. Others questioned why parts of the West Valley are packaged into a district with parts of Yuma and Tucson, along with the Tohono O’odham Nation.
The bright side of breaking up a community
Elsewhere in the state, some people were adamant that they’d prefer for their communities to be split.
The 2011 commission’s decision to bisect Yuma on both the congressional and legislative maps was controversial. Rather than keep the county or even the city whole, the commission separated the southern portion, with its predominantly Democratic and Latino population, from the northern part, which is largely white and Republican.
Though some residents preferred to keep Yuma whole and not be forced to share representation with more populous areas in Tucson and western Maricopa County, the predominant attitude was that they were better off split into two districts. Some residents said that gave them twice as much influence, with lawmakers from two separate districts looking out for their best interests.
Lynne Pancrazi, a Democratic member of the Yuma County Board of Supervisors and a former state legislator, said she was skeptical when the last commission split the county in half. But it turned out for the best, she said, because rural Arizona is underrepresented at the state Capitol, and Yuma now has six lawmakers instead of three representing its interests.
Neil Bowman, a Yuma farmer, also expressed his support for keeping the county split between two legislative districts, though he favored the idea of keeping the area in a single congressional district.
“My experience is (that) each area, from east to the Gila Valley to Yuma Valley, is truly unique in so many ways that that needs to be recognized,” Bowman said. “While we are bound together by agriculture on a national scale and on a congressional scale, certainly on a state scale we are unique communities.”
Concerns over communities of interest were no less potent in the more densely populated urban areas. Jim Keller, a resident of a retirement community in northern Peoria, said his area should be in the same district as places like Sun City, where common needs like access to medical services constitute a community of interest. Cecilia Moreno, of Phoenix, urged the commission to keep Maryvale, where she lives, contained in a single district. Elizabeth Boynton asked the commission to do the same with her region of north Phoenix, noting that she rarely goes west of Interstate 17 or south of Thunderbird Road.
“I would just encourage this IRC to insist on keeping communities in whole districts and not allow the map to go into contortions to achieve any sort of political or social objective,” Boynton said during the commission’s July 24 meeting in Glendale.
Jana Lynn Granillo, of Tempe, disliked that much of her city was part of the same legislative district as west Mesa.
“Mesa is quite different from Tempe. Please keep this in mind when slicing and dicing populations,” Granillo told the AIRC at the Phoenix Convention Center on July 25.
The full-court partisan press
The listening tour was the commission’s first real opportunity to hear from the public about what Arizonans would like to see in redistricting. It’s also the first chance that partisan groups on the left and right have had to influence the AIRC’s decision-making process when it begins drawing new district boundaries. Arizonans have always had the option of submitting written comments to the commission. But because of COVID-19, the AIRC’s regular meetings have all been digital, leaving members of the public unable to speak with them face to face.
Partisan groups on the right and left have been preparing for this phase of the redistricting process for more than a year.
Fair Maps Arizona, a group created by businessman Steve Gaynor, a former secretary of state candidate who is now seeking the GOP nomination for governor, recruited candidates for the redistricting commission last year. Now, it preps people to testify before the AIRC. The group has a guide on its website on how to write effective testimony, and an email to supporters offered to go over the final product one-on-one.
On the other side of the aisle, the Arizona Democratic Party is leading the left’s redistricting efforts in the state. Another group, All on the Line, which was founded by former Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder, hosts monthly training calls for volunteers who want to engage in the redistricting process.
In Florence, one woman commented to a person sitting nearby that Jonathan Paton, a former Republican state lawmaker, “did a good job giving us the talking points.” She left without speaking her mind to the commission, so it’s unclear what talking points she was referring to. Others read from papers that contained extensive lists of talking points, rattling off statistics about population differentials between legislative districts and urging the commission not to support competitiveness to the detriment of other factors, echoing the language in the Arizona Constitution’s redistricting criteria.
Partisan buzz words: population vs. competitiveness
Throughout the tour, people urged the commission to ensure that legislative districts have populations that are as equal as possible, alleging that the previous districts had population differentials of up to 12%. According to the data from the 2011 commission, the most underpopulated district was 4.7% below the “ideal” population, and the most overpopulated was 4.1% above that mark, meaning the differential was actually within 9%. The number may have originated with Fair Maps Arizona, which states on its website that, “Some districts had 12% more population than others.”
Population differential among legislative districts was the basis of a Republican lawsuit against the current legislative map. The AIRC shifted voters from Pinal County-based District 8 into neighboring District 11, with one commissioner stating that her goal was to make the former more competitive and others expressing their interest in expanding minority voting power. District 8 became less Republican and slightly more favorable to the Democrats, while District 11, which was already heavily Republican, became more so.
I am a victim of competitiveness.
– Phoenix resident William Smith
For Democrats, the keyword in redistricting is often “competitiveness,” an issue that came up frequently throughout the listening tour.
“Our democracy cannot survive with one party in power with no obligation to listen and address the needs of all constituents, not just those who voted for them,” Janet Johnson, a 20-year Phoenix resident, told the AIRC on July 25.
Competitive districts are a boon for minority parties, said Douglas Spencer, a professor of law and public policy at the University of Connecticut, and an expert on redistricting. In Colorado, for example, Republicans are urging the state’s new redistricting commission to focus on competitive districts, which would aid them against the Democrats who now control the state. In predominantly Republican Arizona, it’s the Democrats who have the most to gain from competitive districts.
When districts are more competitive, that makes less proportional outcomes more likely, Spencer said. If every district is within one percentage point in terms of competitiveness metrics, one party could get lucky and sweep the election in a wave year. Or it could lose every seat.
“Usually, parties that are in the minority want competitive seats because it gives them a fighting chance to maybe overperform than they otherwise would,” Spencer said.
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The talking points from the Fair Maps Arizona website encourage people to “explain that the previous commission was too focused on competitiveness.”
Trudy Miller, of Carefree, told the commission at the Mesa Convention Center that she largely hasn’t felt represented by her elected officials. Competitiveness, she said, would remedy that problem.
“To make every vote valuable, I believe that the most critical factor is competitiveness. With that, candidates will not be shoo-ins for one party or the other, but rather candidates will be obliged to appeal to each voter for their support,” Miller said.
William Smith, a resident of District 28, one of the state’s most competitive legislative districts, took the opposite approach. He said the last commission did him a disservice when it included his area of north Phoenix in the same district with Paradise Valley.
“I am a victim of competitiveness,” Smith told the commission at its final listening tour hearing in Mesa on Aug. 9. “When I got redistricted in LD28, they stole my voice.”
Some people urged the AIRC not to focus on competitiveness, at least to the detriment of other criteria.
“I fully support this principle. However, in previous redistricting, I believe we sacrificed the best interests of many communities in order to meet the criteria of competitiveness,” Daniel Dooley, who lives just outside San Tan Valley, told the commission at its first hearing in Florence.
Underpopulating a district allows a smaller group to have a greater voice, said Willie Desmond, who served as one of the mapping consultants for the 2011 commission. Most of the underpopulated legislative districts are Democratic, and of those, the bulk are majority-minority districts that the commission drew to comply with the Voting Rights Act. That was a major concern of the last AIRC, given that the landmark federal law still required the Department of Justice to pre-approve the new maps at the time.
“I think there was a sense last time that, perhaps if those deviations wouldn’t have been as extreme, the map could have been more favorable to Republicans,” Desmond said.
Spencer said eliminating population imbalances could have another effect, one that would be less favorable to Republicans. He said population differentials often favor rural areas at the expense of urban districts.
While congressional districts must have almost precisely equal populations, the U.S. Supreme Court grants greater latitude on legislative districts. The court has historically allowed deviations of up to 5% above or below the average district population in cases where there is a compelling interest, such as complying with the Voting Rights Act. The high court upheld Arizona’s legislative map in the Republican lawsuit over population imbalances.
The AIRC will soon have the opportunity to take action on the recommendations and requests they heard during the listening tour. The U.S. Census Bureau on Thursday will release the long-delayed data that states need to draw new districts. After the commission uses that information to draw “grid maps” based solely on equal population, they’ll adjust the boundaries based on the Arizona Constitution’s six redistricting criteria. Once the AIRC has finished its first draft of the new maps, it will go back on the road to get more input from people across the state.
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