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Arizona’s Redistricting System is a Huge Success. Some Legislators Want to Gut It.

Arizona’s voter approved independent redistricting system has been a national model for nearly two decades.

May 4, 2018

Arizona’s voter approved independent redistricting system has been a national model for nearly two decades. Reformers in other states, from California to Pennsylvania, have built off its model. And for good reason. It has kept Arizona free from the curse of extreme partisan gerrymandering that undermines fair representation for both Republicans and Democrats around the country. But now, if Arizona Republican legislators get their way, Arizona could unwind this achievement and reinject direct political interference into mapdrawing. Such backsliding could hamper ongoing redistricting reform efforts around the country.

Thanks to a simple buffer, Arizona’s existing system does not give politicians complete discretion over who serves on the five-member redistricting commission. Instead, a nonpartisan independent agency, the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments, screens applications from interested Arizonans and generates a list of qualified candidates – 10 Republicans, 10 Democrats, and five independents. From this pool, legislative leaders from both parties pick two Republican and two Democratic commissioners. These four then agree on a commission chair from the list of independents.

This week, house Republicans passed SCR 1034, which would undermine this screening process, on a party-line vote. The bill has received no Democratic support. Good government groups have also raised serious concerns about the bill’s provisions that would hinder the ability of communities of color, particularly Native Americans, to elect candidates of choice.    

Such a hyper partisan process in the context of redistricting results in policies that make partisanship worse. SCR 1034 is no exception.

The proposal would expand the commission to nine members, balancing Republicans, Democrats, and independents at three apiece. A positive change when viewed in isolation. But the neutral screening performed by the independent agency would no longer apply to eight of the commissioners, including two “independents” who would be appointed by party leaders. As Republican Senate President Yarbrough, the author of the bill, has admitted, they will be “the most partisan independents that [party leaders] can possibly find.” 

This change may seem insignificant, but the impact would be disastrous for democracy. It means commissioners would no longer be screened for an ability to fairly apply legitimate redistricting criteria, but instead for party loyalty. It means politicians would be able to protect their interests through handpicked operatives whose mission would be ensuring incumbent reelection. These concerns aren’t just a thought experiment. States using such systems see commissioners act as proxies for politicians with little accountability to the public. That is not how democracy or redistricting should work.

SCR 1034 would also frustrate, rather than promote, President Yarbrough’s goal of reducing partisanship in redistricting.

Five commissioners would have the ability to adopt a redistricting plan. That gives the independent chair disproportionate influence. The commissioners directly appointed by each party would have no incentive to work across the aisle. Instead, each faction would naturally focus on lobbying the independent tiebreaker. Such a system could easily leave one party’s concerns entirely unaddressed and all Arizonans worse off.

It is certainly possible to improve Arizona’s redistricting system. But any reform should build off existing strengths. It should promote compromise, independence, and transparency in both substance and its path to becoming law. SCR 1034 falls flat on all counts.

It is a shame that in the middle of budget negotiations and a public education funding crisis Arizona House Republicans have rammed through this brazen power grab. The fight, however, is not over. The measure must still pass a final vote in the Arizona senate and earn the support of voters in November.

And should this constitutional amendment make the ballot, Arizonans should reject SCR 1034 and make it clear, for a second time, that redistricting must be independent and responsive to the interests of communities, not politicians.

(Photo: Flickr/Gage Skidmore)