Payson Council Supports Tonto Apache Redistricting Plan

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The Payson Town Council last week unanimously supported a plan put forward by the Tonto Apache Tribe to draw new district lines for the three county board of supervisor seats.

The Star Valley council is also expected to support the plan. That would make the Tonto Apache plan the North County favorite — and one of the few plans that might survive consultant’s fears that any significant change in the current boundaries will upset the Department of Justice, which will review any proposed redistricting plan to determine if it blunts the political clout of minority residents.

“As we have battled our way through redistricting, we find there are conflicting rules,” said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans, referring to federal guidelines that say districts should have nearly the same population but boundary changes should not reduce the total percentage of minority voters in certain districts. “Someone is going to have to say which rule we follow.”

The Payson council’s action came on the heels of the latest meeting by the county-appointed committee charged with recommending new maps to the board of supervisors.

That committee wrestled with the complexities of the consultant’s finding that because the county shows a pattern of “racially polarized voting,” the Justice Department will likely object to any change in district lines that will reduce the percentage of minorities in District 2 or District 3.

Since the majority of both Hispanic and Native American voters in the county live in South County, that view would likely guarantee district lines that would enable South County voters to continue to dominate two of the three county districts — although more than half of the county’s population lives in the north.

The committee appointed by the board of supervisors with a membership balanced between North and South County residents grappled with the complexities for several hours last Tuesday, July 19.

Committee members considered a dozen proposed maps that tried to make the populations of the three supervisorial districts as nearly equal as possible, without making it harder for minority voters to elect candidates with which they agree.

That included the submission of a map by the Tonto Apache Tribe that would shift their Payson reservation into District 3 to join with the portions of the White Mountain and San Carlos Reservations already in that district. To balance out the shift, the Tonto Apache map would move Hispanic voters now in District 3 south of Globe into District 2.

That map would slightly increase the clout of Apache voters in District 3 and significantly increase the share of Hispanic voters in District 2, while leaving District 1 in North County overwhelmingly white.

However, it would also reduce the combined total of Apache and Hispanic voters in District 3 from about 50 percent to about 44 percent, which could run afoul of key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, according to statements by the two consultants hired to advise the committee.

The consultants said the only map that didn’t appear to have problems with the Voting Rights Act was a version that left the current district lines almost unchanged. The populations of the three districts right now don’t vary by more than 10 percent from smallest to largest, which means the county would not necessarily have to change the lines to satisfying the rules concerning one-man, one-vote.

Four maps will be studied

The committee members last week settled on four maps for further study, including the map submitted by the Tonto Apache Tribe.

The committee asked the consultants to figure out whether creating new precincts would make it possible to adjust boundaries without significantly reducing the minority percentages in districts 2 and 3. The consultants will report back to the committee this week.

The committee has already settled on three alternative maps for the community college districts.

After the consultants work the submitted supervisor maps over, the committee will pick maps to recommend to the supervisors.

The board of supervisors during the first week in August are expected to pick one map for the supervisorial districts and another map for the community college district. The county will then hold a round of public hearings on those proposed maps.

Final maps go to Department of Justice for review

The maps adopted by the county supervisors will then go to the Department of Justice for review. Arizona remains one of a handful of states whose district maps must go back to the Justice Department to ensure they don’t violate the Voting Rights Act. Arizona remains on virtual redistricting probation because the Department of Justice determined that many of the boundaries lawmakers drew in Maricopa and Pima counties diluted the clout of Hispanics there in violation of the voting rights act.

The state approved the De­partment of Justice’s rejection of its redistricting plan a decade ago. A judge upheld the state’s plan and the Justice Department never appealed the ruling. As a result, the current district lines never did actually receive the Department of Justice’s blessing, said Mayor Evans.

The consultants’ initial presentation to the redistricting committee last week suggested that none of the proposed maps for the community colleges seem likely to raise red flags at the Justice Department.

That initial presentation also made it sound like any change in the boundaries for the supervisorial districts that reduces the percentage of minority voters in districts 2 and 3 will trigger questions.

However, in later discussions the consultants conceded that the request of the Tonto Apache Tribe will likely raise novel legal issues that have not been settled by previous court cases.

The key question lies in whether the Justice Department will lump together Hispanics and Apaches in deciding whether a particular plan dilutes their voting rights.

Racially polarized voting patterns

The consultant also took pains to try to explain the finding of a racially polarized voting pattern in past supervisorial elections.

Several committee members objected to the findings, pointing out that although Supervisorial District 2 has a majority white population, the district has historically elected Hispanic supervisors — most recently Supervisor Mike Pastor.

“That proves that we don’t vote based on race in Gila County,” said one committee member.

The consultant struggled to explain the statistics behind the finding of a racially polarized voting pattern. Several committee members have demanded the detailed statistical analysis, but the consultants have said the analysis is “work product” and therefore confidential. However, they did talk in general terms about what constitutes “racially polarized” voting.

The analysis refers more to variations in voting from one precinct to another than to the outcome of the election districtwide.

For instance, each district has many different precincts, each with different percentages of minority voters. A district is considered “racially polarized” if a Hispanic candidate gets a higher percentage of the vote in the mostly Hispanic districts than in the mostly white districts.

Imagine for a moment that a Hispanic candidate gets a 55 percent of the vote in a mostly white district but 80 percent of the vote in a mostly Hispanic district. That statistic would support a finding that the district shows a pattern of “racially polarized voting,” even though a majority of whites might support the minority candidate.

Initially, the consultants suggested that the Justice Depart­ment would automatically reject such a change — and would give no credit for a corresponding increase in minority representation in an adjoining district.

However, after the meeting the consultants conceded that the argument the Tonto Apaches raise is a novel issue and that “there’s no telling” how the Justice Department might view such a shift.

Moreover, the consultants said in the past the Justice Depart­ment has given great weight to formal plans submitted by Indian tribes.

The consultants promised to come up with refinements of the four county supervisor maps preferred by the committee. Those refinements will likely do jigsaw puzzle shifts of some of the nearly 5,000 census tracts in the county, instead of restricting the moves to the roughly 167 precincts.

That fine-grained adjustment could result in new maps that make only minor shifts in minority populations.

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