Redistricting should unite us around commonalities, not separate our ideologies

August 26, 2021 11:26 am

Image credit: Getty Images

In late July and early August, Arizona’s Independent Redistricting Commission conducted a “listening tour,” holding 15 open hearings around the state. The point of the exercise was for the five commissioners to hear the views of the public about their “communities of interest.” A community of interest is often a geographic region where residents shop, work, or otherwise have similar living patterns. 

Such areas are typically far too small to comprise an entire legislative district, much less a congressional district, but they can form the building blocks of these larger units. Respecting these communities of interest — for instance by not dividing them with district boundaries — is one of the key criteria added to the Arizona Constitution by a citizen initiative two decades ago.

But during the “open mic” parts of this listening tour, many speakers extrapolated from communities of interest to districts, suggesting that they should solely be composed of people who shared their values. While that concern was not well defined, it was clear that there were some differences that really bothered them — for instance, between “rural” and “Maricopa County.”

There’s a problem with this view. During a public hearing in Tucson, a local speaker took issue with the idea that people in an area “don’t have anything in common” with other groups that they didn’t want to share a district with.  

This critique resonated with me. Indeed, thinking more broadly about Arizona’s future, how odd it is to think that we are so different from one another! Think about the key issues affecting our state: improving education for our children, and good access to health care for everyone; management of water, especially given our long-term drought and troubling new water restrictions; and, most urgently, the pandemic. 

These issues and many more affect all of us, not exclusively urban, suburban or rural voters. 

For instance, at the hearings, water resources were frequently mentioned by rural speakers as something that they had deep concerns about. But don’t we all? Although I live in an urban area, I’d really like to know that I will still have enough water in 20 years.

Despite our deep political divisions, a significant majority of Arizonans agree that all of these issues must be managed. But we must be careful to find ways to discuss them without everyone retreating to their distant and familiar ideological corners.

Implicitly or not, many rural speakers spoke against any emphasis on “competitiveness,” opposing any move to closely balancing voter preferences between the two major parties. It was probably not a coincidence that this was a Republican Party talking point that was widely distributed.

Competitiveness is one of the redistricting criteria delineated in the state constitution, and it was particularly highlighted in the original initiative that Arizona citizens voted on, which established the redistricting commission to “oversee the mapping of fair and competitive” districts.

Once the initiative passed, a goal of having competitive districts was enshrined in our state constitution, much as was the respect for communities of interest. 

But seeking competitive districts is more than a legal constraint: It also is important for democracy and for moving society forward. Having competitive districts has important advantages, including protecting against extremism, which can be encouraged if the only important election is the primary. 

When the primary is the only one that matters, each candidate tries to outdo the others on engaging (and sometimes inflaming) the base. 

Many speakers on the tour, reflecting Republican talking points, spoke of the problems with having districts that were split down the middle by belief systems. Indeed, that is a problem that we have in our country. But this is not solved by isolating people into ideological bubbles any more than we already are. In the current fractured political climate, it may seem impossible to have any dialog at all between people with different opinions. And direct assaults on our ideological opponents do not sway anyone.

The key to unity may be to focus on the many things that we are already unified on. And where we are grouped together by political districts, we can work together to solve community problems, while competing vigorously on our preferred solutions. 

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Nelson Morgan
Nelson Morgan

Nelson Morgan, an Emeritus Professor at the University of California at Berkeley, is also a co-Director of Neighbors Forward AZ, a local non-profit dedicated to connecting good neighbors to achieve a peaceful, healthy society. He is the author of “We Can Fix It: How to disrupt the Impact of Big Money on politics”, with a foreword by George Lakoff.