A brief history of political mapping
Twenty years ago, Arizonans took control of redistricting away from politicians. The process of redistricting continued to be rancorous and political. But the IRC may be growing up.
When Arizona activists first drummed up a campaign to take redistricting out of the hands of politicians at the state Capitol, it was a pretty radical idea.
For as long as anyone could remember, Arizona lawmakers, like lawmakers almost everywhere in the country, had drawn their own districts — picking and choosing their voters rather than the other way around.
They packed voters into gerrymandered districts that suited the needs of politicians rather than the needs of constituents. They drew the state’s congressional districts as well, oftentimes rigging the maps in hopes of drawing themselves into promotions.
The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission was supposed to solve all that. Voters approved the five-member board — made up of two Republicans, two Democrats and one independent, none of whom can be politicians or lobbyists — to draw Arizona’s political maps in 2000.
But 21 years later, some early supporters of the IRC are disillusioned, saying it hasn’t resulted in truly fair maps, and is just as steeped in dirty politics as when the legislature drew maps.
Still, many see potential in this year’s commission, saying this year’s redistricting hasn’t been as vicious or litigious as in the past. The commission approved draft maps unanimously. There are still last-minute changes coming after the commission’s ongoing 30-day listening tour, but so far, it’s been the most ho-hum redistricting process in modern history.
To evaluate whether this year’s commission is succeeding, we wanted to look back at what came before it. Redistricting is an arcane yet important process that only happens once a decade. With term limits, few Capitol denizens these days remember the last round of independent redistricting in 2011, let alone the first round in 2001 or the last time lawmakers drew maps themselves in 1991.
The long view of the IRC is that, after two decades and two highly antagonistic commissions, it’s still a political process. But this year, the politics are somewhat muted. The commissioners are getting along. The maps aren’t drawing the same level of partisan rancor.
It appears that the commission is finally maturing into the kind of institution Arizonans demanded when they approved the IRC 20 years ago.
Tom Collins, executive director of the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission, covered the formation of the IRC as a reporter, before he became a lawyer, and has watched closely the last three rounds of independent redistricting. He said fundamentally, the commission is still better than lawmakers drawing maps because it happens out in the open. But there’s no taking the politics out of redistricting.
“There's a big investment in a narrative that says if we could only get this structural thing changed, then X, Y and Z will follow,” he said. “But if the last 20 years have taught anybody anything, I say it’s that some people never stop fighting.”
And he said despite the intermittent nature of the commission, in the third go around, it seems to be evolving into what supporters hoped it would become.
“It’s a different kind of politics. It’s turning into a bureaucracy,” he said. “And if you believe that bureaucracy can be effective in terms of integrity and transparency, and that transparency can reinforce integrity, then it’s a good thing.”
Back in the day
Pete Rios was Arizona Senate President in 1991, the last time lawmakers drew maps themselves. Democrats had taken control of the upper chamber following the impeachment of Republican Gov. Evan Mecham. The House was run by Republicans, and passing a map pre-IRC required agreement from the two chambers.
“Redistricting is the most political process that (lawmakers) can be involved in,” he said. “Emotions ran high. They were protecting their turf. Everyone was.”
The respective majority leaders in each chamber took charge of the process and hired their own demographers to craft the maps on ancient computers before shopping drafts to lawmakers in their caucuses.
That’s when the horse trading started, as lawmakers wanted to ensure their districts were safe for reelection. He recalls one lawmaker cursing him out on the Senate floor because he didn’t like the shape of his district.
“He came up to my desk and called me the F-word,” Rios recalled. The two took it into the hallways, where the lawmaker wound up storming off while flipping him the bird.
Another lawmaker wanted to tweak the lines just slightly so his parents and grandparents in his district, Rios said.
“I said, ‘Oh my God, that’s not what this is about, dude,’” he recalled. But it was an easy favor to grant, so Rios did. “That doesn’t make a hill of beans anyway.”
Rios, of course, drew himself a favorable district. The Arizona Republic noted years later that among a host of other lawmakers making self-serving decisions, Rios allegedly drew his district that way because he said he didn’t want “redneck” conservatives in his district.
“That was said in confidence,” Rios laughed when we brought it up. “But there are no secrets in politics, especially in the state legislature.”
At one point, the split House and Senate appeared at a deadlock on the congressional maps — sparking a lawsuit in which the a federal stepped in and drafted its own map, forcing the two sides to come to an agreement.
Achieving “preclearance” from the U.S. Department of Justice was a separate problem. Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a host of states and municipalities with histories of racial discrimination were required to get Department of Justice approval before implementing any new district maps — including Arizona.
The Department of Justice rejected lawmakers’ legislative maps twice in the 1991 redistricting cycle; once for diluting the voting power of Hispanics by dividing Santa Cruz County into three legislative districts, and the other time for “elevating incumbency-protection considerations above the fair recognition of minority voter strength.”
At one point, Rios and a delegation including Republican Speaker of the House Jane Hull traveled to Washington D.C. to make a bipartisan pitch for the maps before the Department of Justice, he said.
Because the Department of Justice kept rejecting the legislature’s maps, the process actually stretched into 1994 before the maps were fully settled (politicians used interim maps in the 1992 election).
The same problems of drafting racially discriminatory maps that get shot down by the Department of Justice would later plague the first IRC as well.
The 2000 campaign: Enter the IRC
The proposal for an independent redistricting commission came against the backdrop of a wave of good government reforms in the late 1990s sparked, at least in part, by the AZScam scandal of 1991.1
In 1998, Democrats and good government groups took to the ballot with the Voter Protection Act and the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission. Then came a constitutional amendment in 2000, Prop. 106 , which created the IRC. It had broad bipartisan support from leaders like former Attorney General Grant Woods, then-Attorney General Janet Napolitano and former Phoenix Mayor Terry Goddard.
The major opposition came from the state Republican Party and incumbent lawmakers. And all five Republican congressmen (only one of the state’s six seats was held by a Democrat), wrote a letter explaining their opposition in the election publicity pamphlet. Still, voters approved the constitutional change by a margin of 12 percentage points.
Rios refused to back the measure publicly at the time. He said it wasn’t the intent that he objected to, necessarily, but the great power it vested in one “independent” commissioner, and the weak protection from the position being infiltrated by partisans with the foresight to ditch their party registration three years before redistricting, among other flaws.
And when the first independent commission began its work, it immediately became clear to him that there was no taking the politics out of political maps.
“I am not convinced, to be honest with you, that the IRC is not just as political as the legislature was. They are influenced by the parties, the individual legislators, by congressmen and congressional candidates,” he said. “It’s still political, they just try to hide it better.”
Goddard has a similar sentiment 20 years later.
“At the time, we really thought we were really breaking new ground and doing exactly the right thing,” he said. But now, he thinks the commission vested too much power in one “independent” chair.
The 2001 cycle: Republicans win
Democrats and Republicans don’t agree on much — but both sides agree Republicans “won” the first independent redistricting cycle in 2000, after the independent chair, Steve Lynn, a former Republican from Tucson, sided with the commission’s two Republicans on almost all major issues.
But more concerning, the commission was ultimately plagued by the same problems that faced map-drawing lawmakers: lawsuits, political squabbles and the Department of Justice.
And the legal drama at the first commission immediately highlighted the main source of conflict that continues today: how much to emphasize competitiveness in mapmaking.
Attorney Paul Eckstein filed a lawsuit on behalf of a group of Latinos that forced the courts to grapple with the question of exactly how competitive a map, or any particular district, must be.
“Virtually that whole decade was devoted to various legal challenges to IRC,” he said, but the question of competitiveness was the big one.
The constitutional amendment enacting the IRC states districts must follow several criteria, like complying with the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act; and that districts must have equal population, be compact and contiguous and keep intact “communities of interest” — be that Native Americans, mining communities or business corridors —to the extent practicable.
The final requirement is that competitive districts “should be favored where to do so would create no significant determinant to the other goals.”
That case was finally settled in 2009, when the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that, essentially, while competitiveness is a priority, commissioners don’t need to make the districts as competitive as possible. They only need to show that they considered competitiveness against other constitutional requirements.
But as that lawsuit was ongoing, the Department of Justice rejected the commission’s first legislative draft map, saying the new commissioners had drawn regressive maps disenfranchised minority voters by curtailing their ability to elect minority legislators just as lawmakers had for at least two decades before voters wrested the reins of redistricting from politicians and handed it to the IRC.
The new maps ended up helping Democrats in Congress over time. Arizona’s congressional delegation went from five Republicans and one Democrat in 2001 to five Republicans and three Democrats in 2011.
But by 2011, Democrats were in the worst position they had ever been at the state Capitol as a super-minority in both the House and Senate. Some of that was external factors like the Tea Party wave of 2010, but some of it was that legislative maps simply weren’t friendly to Democrats.
“After (the 1991 redistricting), I didn’t think it could get worse,” Goddard, who backed the 2000 campaign for the IRC, said. “And then in the first year of redistricting done by what we thought was a transparent and nonpolitical process, it was worse. It was significantly worse.”
Goddard blames the still lackluster results from the IRC process on that lawsuit — and the Supreme Court’s decision to downplay competitiveness.
“The word competitive got completely written out of the statute,” he said. “And that’s where we went wrong, in my opinion. That’s where we turned the best of intentions into something that has mediocre to disappointing results.”
The 2011 cycle: Democrats strike back
Democrats are widely credited with winning the 2011 redistricting cycle, the most rancorous redistricting to date, which included death threats against the chair, and her illegal removal, raw political brawls and too many lawsuits to recount.
It was an impressive feat for Democrats considering they held just one-third of the seats in both chambers of the legislature at the time.
But because of the IRC, winning redistricting no longer required winning majorities in the legislature. Instead, the real key is holding the governorship in the leadup to redistricting — as the governor appoints members of the Arizona Commission on Appellate Court Appointments, which vets members of the commission and narrows the pool of applicants to the commission.
Before leaving town to join President Barack Obama’s administration, then-Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, stacked CACA with her own appointees and the commission ultimately narrowed the list of independent candidates down to five, and the four commissioners picked Colleen Mathis, a political unknown, to lead them.
There was a sense among Republicans that Mathis was the least threatening of the candidates. But then she sided with Democrats in a host of 3-2 votes, including by hiring a Democratic mapping firm, and she consulted closely with Democratic operatives about the maps.
For the first time, redistricting wasn’t going the way Republicans at the Capitol wanted.
So legislative leaders drummed up a campaign to oust Mathis, as allowed in the state Constitution, for “gross misconduct” and “neglect of duty.” Months later, after Mathis sided with Democrats in approving draft maps, then-Gov. Jan Brewer pulled the trigger, arguing, in part, that the commission had unconstitutionally placed competitiveness above all other goals. Republicans in the state Senate followed suit and voted to remove her from office.
Mathis’ removal was short-lived. The Arizona Supreme Court reinstated her less than two weeks later.
For all of their complaining, however, the GOP ended up with four solidly Republican congressional districts, while Democrats ended up with two solidly Democratic (and majority-minority) districts. There were three competitive congressional districts; Democrats held two of the three throughout the decade, while one — CD2 in Pima and Cochise counties — flipped back and forth throughout the decade. Meanwhile, on the legislative level, Republicans maintained control of the Legislature for the entire decade, although Democrats in 2020 came within one seat of an even balance of power in both chambers.
It was by far the most contentious redistricting process to date, perhaps more so than even when lawmakers drew the maps.
But for the first time since at least the 1970s, the maps faced no trouble receiving “preclearance” from the Department of Justice and multiple lawsuits from GOP-aligned groups were rejected by the courts, including one challenging the very existence of the commission that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The 2020 cycle: The best yet?
Upon taking office in 2015, one of Gov. Doug Ducey’s first orders of business was to start making appointments to CACA, a long-sighted move that ensured Republicans would have more control over the choices for the independent who would become IRC chair.
The conventional wisdom was that Republicans would dominate this year’s redistricting cycle. And Democrats’ fear was that the IRC would draw unbridled partisan and discriminatory maps.
That’s because this year, commissioners are mapping without one major guardrail that has time and again stopped Arizona legislators and the IRC from drawing maps that discriminate against people of color: the “preclearance” required under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The U.S. Supreme Court gutted Section 5 in 2013, and this year marks the first time Arizona has drawn maps without the threat of federal intervention.
Voting rights advocates offered doomsday predictions that without that guardrail, commissioners would be free to try to draw discriminatory maps that dilute the voting power of Arizona’s Latinos and Native Americans.
But so far, the redistricting process has been exceedingly cordial. Democrats and Republicans alike praised the selection of this year’s independent chair, Erika Neuberg, a former Republican who has contributed to both Republican and Democratic campaigns. The maps have been largely uncontroversial. There haven’t even been any lawsuits since the commission got started on drafting maps.
Sure, some angry constituents have sent letters or spoke at meetings. That’s democracy. And there were some shenanigans with a business group in southern Arizona endorsing a map drawn by a political operative. But that’s pretty tame stuff compared to the constant rolling scandals of 2011.
Most impressively, the commission adopted draft maps unanimously.
Barrett Marson is a Republican consultant who watched the first commission as a reporter for the East Valley Tribune in 2001 and has followed redistricting ever since.
The 2001 commission had a Republican bent because the chair was clearly working on behalf of Republican interests, he said. He thought the same of the 2011 commission and chair — she clearly sided with Democrats to make the maps they wanted.
But Neuberg set a goal at the outset that the maps would not end up in 3-2 votes with her as the tiebreaker. And that set a different tone at the commission, Marson said.
“She is truly in control and is listening to both sides,” he said. “And I don’t think she has given either side the short shrift on anything they’ve asked for.”
The maps still aren’t finalized, and could change significantly, so it’s too early to call the 2021 commission a success, he said. But the level of consensus on the commission thus far is a good sign that redistricting can be, if not nonpolitical, at least less toxic.
Even Rios admits that the commission seems to be doing a fair job drawing maps thus far, and that handing over power to commissioners is probably a better option than allowing lawmakers to draw the maps.
“Because it's become so vitriolic in the legislature, I'd have to say that at this point in time, I'd rather take my chances with the IRC,” he said. “(Lawmakers) would be so partisan that they just wouldn’t come up with anything good. Back in the 90s, we spoke to each other.”