It's called "gerrymandering," a word formed by combining the name of former Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry and the word "salamander."
In 1812, the Republican Gerry reshaped a congressional election district in that state so it resembled the shape of a salamander for the sole purpose of guaranteeing it would contain a majority of GOP voters. It's a practice politicians have engaged in ever since.
On Nov. 7, Arizona voters will be asked to approve a ballot initiative that its backers hope will finally end the practice of manipulating electoral districts to give the incumbent of one political party an advantage by concentrating the opposition's voting strength in as few districts as possible. Proposition 106 would create a five-member Citizen's Independent Redistricting Commission to draw legislative and congressional district boundaries instead of allowing the Arizona Legislature to do it.
A recent statewide poll of 602 randomly selected voters conducted by The Arizona Republic indicates that 43 percent of the state's registered voters intend to vote for Proposition 106, with 29 percent opposed, and 28 percent undecided. The survey also reveals that many voters do not yet understand what 106 is all about.
Part of the confusion lies in the fact that Arizona's congressional districts are only altered once every 10 years, after each census. Because it happens so infrequently, "people are unfamiliar with the need for change," said Jay Thorne, spokesman for the Fair Districts, Fair Elections group that sponsored the proposal.
Among those opposing the initiative is the Arizona Republican Party, which claims a small group of wealthy donors is trying to impose a new system that will remain political no matter who draws the lines. Republican Party Chairman Nathan Sproul said that under Proposition 106, the Legislature would still appoint five members to the redistricting commission.
Actually four members of the commission would be appointed, one each by the House speaker, the House minority leader, the Senate president and the Senate minority leader, from a pool of 25 residents who have been screened for constitutional eligibility by the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments. No more than two Republicans and two Democrats could serve on the redistricting commission.
The fifth commissioner, who would serve as chairman and "tie breaker," would be selected by the other four commissioners, and could not be a member of any party already represented on the commission.
The commissioners, who would be reimbursed for travel expenses only, would contract with professional mapping consultants and demographic, geographic and other experts. In drawing maps, they would consider equal population, compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, geographic compactness, respect for communities of interest, existing city or town boundaries and geographic boundaries, and, where possible, competitiveness.
A quintet of congressmen, including J.D. Hayworth, Bob Stump, John Shadegg, Jim Kolbe and Matt Salmon, signed a letter urging a "No" vote on 106.
In it they wrote, "It is an attempt by special interest groups who want to change the redistricting process because they do not like who you have elected to represent you ... Contrary to the arguments its proponents make, this initiative will make the redistricting process more secretive, more 'backroom' and more political."
Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano disagrees.
"This initiative is fair to all Arizonans because it opens up the system to public scrutiny; it eliminates conflicts of interest by taking the redistricting process out of incumbent's hands; and, it might just encourage more people to run for public office."
But as Hayworth and friends point out, it comes with a price tag. Proposition 106 allocates $6 million to the Redistricting Commission for use in the redistricting process.