Armed with the public’s thoughts, Redistricting Commission set to start making maps

By: - October 4, 2021 9:16 am

Image credit: Getty Images

When the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission meets on Monday to make its first changes to its grid maps, it will do so armed with the concerns and desires of dozens of people who attended a series of recent meetings to make recommendations about how the state’s new legislative and congressional districts should look.

The grid maps that the commission approved in September are a starting point, an essentially arbitrary set of districts based on nothing more than equal population and compactness, with no consideration given to other factors. The commission will adjust those lines based on other redistricting criteria in the Arizona Constitution, including respect for communities of interest, adherence to the Voting Rights Act, geographic and political boundaries, and compactness and contiguity.

Voters across the state had a wide variety of ideas about how the commission should adjust the grid map to follow those guidelines.

Numerous voters lobbied the commission to ensure that their communities weren’t split as they are in the grid maps. The legislative grid map, for example, follows the boundary between Apache and Navajo counties, slicing the Navajo Nation into two in the process. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, along with other members of the tribe, urged the AIRC to keep the tribal lands in one district, as they are in the current legislative map.

“The splitting of the Navajo Nation into two districts will not comply with certain redistricting criteria,” Nez said. 

To comply with the Voting Rights Act, the commission must create districts where minority voters have the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice. A decade ago, the AIRC drew the boundaries of the current legislative District 7, which includes the Navajo and several other tribes in northern and eastern Arizona, to help comply with that requirement. 

In southern Arizona, people asked the same for Cochise County. The legislative grid map lops off the southwestern portion of the county and places it in a separate district from the rest of Cochise. Rep. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, and Ray Ihly, the GOP chairman for Cochise-based legislative District 14, asked commissioners not to divide the county. 

Some county residents also urged the commission to keep Cochise separate from urban Tucson and to instead include it in a district with Santa Cruz County to the east, which some people cited as distinct from Nogales and the western part of the county. 

“Those of us that live in Cochise County are here because of the nature and the culture of Cochise County,” Lourdes Fernandez told the commission. “To even consider lumping us in with larger cities is an injustice and a disgrace.”

That urban-rural divide was a common refrain at several meetings, as Arizonans expressed concerns over various districts that mixed the two, to the detriment of one or the other.

Residents of predominantly conservative areas in northern Pima County and southern Pinal County, like Oro Valley and SaddleBrooke, asked the commission to keep them separate from the more liberal and urban Tucson. 

Rep. Justin Wilmeth, R-Phoenix, was one of several speakers who urged the commission not to put communities on the northern end of the Phoenix metro area — such as Anthem, Carefree, Cave Creek and New River — into a district with Yavapai County, as the last AIRC did. He said those communities would be better served as part of his north Phoenix-based district.

“I feel like the people that are in Anthem and New River and Carefree and Cave Creek don’t get the same kind of representation they might from people in other districts because (Legislative District 1) is the Prescott Valley district,” Wilmeth said. 

Not everyone wanted their communities kept whole. Several Yuma residents urged the commission to maintain its current split that divides the city and county into two congressional and legislative districts, echoing comments from a previous round of public hearings that were part of the AIRC’s “listening tour.” 

Prescott resident Stephanie Voss asked the commission to separate Sedona from the remainder of Yavapai-centric District 1, as the current legislative map does. She said Sedona and the rest of the county have much different interests both culturally and geographically. The communities shouldn’t be forced into the same political district based on county lines that were drawn a century ago, which she called “artifacts of history that we don’t have any control over.”

“Prescott, as a community … has very little in common with Flagstaff and Sedona. If you come to Prescott, you may notice a lack of crystal shops, for example. We’re not the same kind of people and we also don’t have the same interests geographically,” Voss said. 

Much of the conversation at the four grid map meetings the AIRC has held — a fifth is scheduled for Oct. 7 — revolved around communities of interest, which is one of the six redistricting criteria in the Arizona Constitution. 

The amorphous term for a grouping of people with similar interests, needs or concerns can apply to a wide array of things, from racial and ethnic groups to regions and neighborhoods to transportation corridors to people who work for the same industry or employer to a community that shares a common shopping or entertainment district. Sandra Dowling, the Republican chairwoman for legislative District 13, which stretches from northern Yuma to the western suburbs of Phoenix, identified the communities that rely on Luke Air Force Base as a community of interest that should be kept intact.

Several people cited their school districts as communities of interest they wanted to keep whole. One north Scottsdale district asked the commission to keep Scottsdale Unified School District contained in one legislative district. That would have the added benefit of keeping most of Scottsdale in one district, she said, rather than the three that the grid map carved it into.

Angela Willeford, a representative of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, told the commission the district that includes her tribe should extend into Mesa, because the majority of the tribe’s students attend Mesa Public Schools. 

Erika Neuberg, the commission’s independent chairwoman, said school districts are logical boundaries for the AIRC to use, and said staff has been reaching out to district superintendents across the state for their input. 

Several members of the LGBTQ community asked the commission to take their interests into consideration when drawing the new maps. The advocacy group Equality Arizona submitted maps to the AIRC showing various historic sites, health clinics, cultural hubs and other sites important to the LGBTQ community. 

Kate Saunders, a Phoenix resident who works with Equality Arizona, said the LGBTQ community is often overlooked, and noted that its members aren’t counted in the Census. She said the community is geographically condensed around those sites, largely in Phoenix’s Melrose neighborhood and downtown, and suggested that the district that includes the community could extend east into Tempe or into west Phoenix. 

“Please hear me when I say that workplace discrimination, inaccess to health care and inacecss to other basic necessities are very real and consistent challenges faced by myself, my dearest friends and loved ones on a day-to-day basis,” Saunders said. 

Racial and ethnic politics bubbled to the forefront at times. At a satellite location in Tucson on Sept. 29, one speaker complained that his district included Tohono O’odham and Pascua Yaqui tribal lands. Those tribes have unique interests and should have their own districts, said the man, who told the AIRC, “As you can see, I am not a minority.”

A Tucson woman at the same meeting told the commission not to take competitiveness and diversity into account, telling the commission that diversity is the “exact opposite” of communities of interest. 

Many speakers focused on broader themes rather than details of the grid maps or particular changes they’d like to see. Oftentimes, people urged the commission to prioritize competitiveness in their congressional and legislative maps — though rarely did any suggest specific boundaries that they believed would accomplish that goal — and some sought competitive districts in conservative strongholds like Cave Creek and Fountain Hills. Others lobbied the commission not to allow competitiveness to overshadow other goals they viewed as more important. 

Other public comments had nothing to do with the contours of the grid map districts. The commissioners heard a raft of comments from people who found the IRC’s online mapping tool difficult to use. 

The commission will meet at 12:30 p.m. on Monday at Phoenix City Council chambers to begin the process of adjusting the grid map lines. Those adjustments will continue on Tuesday as part of the AIRC’s regular weekly meeting on Tuesday, which begins at 8 a.m.

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Associate Editor Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. 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.”

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