Race will likely trump population when it comes to the politically explosive task of drawing new Gila County district lines.
For the past decade, supervisorial district lines that favor the south county over the north have spurred protests and fierce political struggle.
The Justice Department’s attempt to protect the political clout of minority communities will likely play the decisive role in the task of drawing up new district lines in the shadow of the 2010 census.
On one hand, officials in northern Gila County hope new district lines will shift the balance of power to the north, which now has more than 55 percent of the population. While Payson’s population has risen more than 12 percent since 2000, the
population of Globe, Miami, Superior and Winkelman have shrunk or stagnated.
On paper that looks like a no-brainer. Surely meeting the constitutional requirement of “one man, one vote” will ensure that new district lines will neatly reverse the division that currently gives south county residents control of both the board of supervisors and the Gila Community College board.
Simple. Right? Not so fast.
Gotta check this out with the Justice Department, which rejected Arizona’s redistricting plans in both 2000 and 1990. In both cases, the Justice Department said Arizona had lied about its numbers to slip through boundaries that would minimize the influence of Hispanic voters in Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties, according to a recent briefing for the Rim Country community by consultants hired by the county to advise the recently established redistricting committee.
So Arizona is one of 16 states that will have to get federal approval of its new district lines. And the Justice Department lawyers will remain focused mostly on how the new district lines will affect Native American or Hispanic voters.
That underlying truth largely accounts for the complexity of the political struggle that already swirls around the county’s redistricting committee — which now has six north county and six south county members.
“We have a right to have our voices heard,” said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans, who has vowed the town will file a lawsuit if the district lines don’t reflect the population shift in the past decade.
“We’ll do whatever we have to do. We have not had that equal voice in our government in the past decade. We want to see a Gila County that is united: It has always felt like the north versus the south. It’s time to put down these swords and sabers.”
A review of the raw data hosted by Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin underscored the complexity of the task, that must satisfy both the constitutional requirement of equal representation and the 1965 Voting Rights Act’s concern with gerrymandering that affects minority voters.
Recently released census figures show northern Gila County has grown faster than southern Gila County, where most of the area’s minority residents live.
In the past decade, north county communities grew while key south county communities shrank.
For instance, Payson’s population (15,301) grew 12 percent, Tonto Basin (1,424) grew 69 percent and Young (666) grew 18 percent. Pine stayed essentially unchanged and Strawberry shrank by 6 percent.
By contrast, Globe’s tally (7,486) barely changed and Miami (1,827), Hayden (662) and Winkelman (353) all declined between 6 and 25 percent.
The fastest-growing area in southern Gila County turned out to be the San Carlos Apache Reservation, including the communities of Peridot and San Carlos, which grew by 7 percent and 9 percent.
Currently, two of the three county supervisor seats mostly represent south-county voters, with one district dominated by the north. Supervisor Tommie Martin’s district includes all of Payson, Pine, Strawberry and nearby communities.
Supervisor Shirley Dawson represents the San Carlos Apache Reservation, a chunk of the Globe area with many Hispanic residents and a piece of northern Gila County, including Star Valley.
Supervisor Mike Pastor represents the rest of the Globe area, the heavily Hispanic areas of Hayden and Winkelman and a wide swath of lightly populated land that includes much of the Tonto Basin.
At first glance, drawing boundaries that divided the 54,000 county residents among three supervisorial shouldn’t be too difficult — just put about 17,000 voters in each district.
But throw in the potential impact on minority communities and the task gets complicated.
Congress passed the Voting Rights Act as the cornerstone of a sweeping set of civil rights laws designed mostly to overturn systems in the south that prevented most black citizens from even registering to vote. The law held that lawmakers could not draw district lines in a way designed to prevent minority voters from electing someone who represented their views — especially a candidate of their own race.
The act has generally increased the political clout of minority voters, including Hispanic and Native American voters in Arizona.
The county consultants, Bruce Adelson and Tony Sissons, worked on redistricting back in 2000, when the Justice Department rejected Arizona’s district lines in 2000.
Normally, the Justice Department has favored lines that will create a district with a 50 percent to 55 percent minority population. Such a district can often elect a minority candidate.
The just-released census figures show that the population in Martin’s north-county dominated District 1 is 8 percent Hispanic and 2 percent American Indian.
Pastor’s, south-county dominated District 2 is 29 percent Hispanic and 4 percent Native American.
Dawson’s south-county dominated District 3 is 18 percent Hispanic and 15 percent Native American, since it includes all of the San Carlos Apache Reservation.
The county redistricting consultants said any plan that dilutes these percentages of minority voters would likely wave red flags under the noses of the ultimate Justice Department reviewers.
The impact on minority voters will likely take precedence over ensuring districts each have the same population. Judges have accepted districts with population variances as great as 10 percent. In theory, each supervisor district should have 17,866 residents, which means Pastor’s district has 4 percent too few, Dawson’s district has almost 3 percent too many and Martin’s district has 1 percent too many.
So on the face of it, line drawers could balance out population by small shifts in the line that would move some voters from Dawson’s district to Pastor’s, without upsetting the Justice Department or disturbing the dominance of southern Gila County.
However, other possibilities may emerge as the redistricting committee fiddles with computerized maps that allow them to instantly calculate populations and minority percentages whenever they move a district line.
For instance, the existing district lines split up the Hispanic population in the Globe and Winkelman area between Pastor’s and Dawson’s districts. As a result, District 3 is 25 percent Hispanic and District 2 is 17 percent Hispanic.
In addition, Dawson’s district includes the entire San Carlos Apache Reservation, which means that Native Americans comprise one-third of the population.
But suppose you concentrated the Hispanic voters in one district, giving those minority voters close to the 55 percent target the Justice Department often seeks.
That could create a new swing district that would include both the San Carlos and the Tonto Apache Reservation, with a population base that would lean north.
That sort of calculation will likely dominate the deliberations of the redistricting committee in the weeks and months to come.