At a crowded public meeting on redistricting Thursday in Payson, county officials reported that the district lines that have upset many north county residents for years can’t change much.
Some 40 people listened to the county elections officials insist that federal rules protecting the voting rights of racial minorities will prevent any significant change in district boundaries for the Gila County Board of Supervisors or the Gila Community College Board of Directors.
The county’s presentation alarmed many northern Gila County leaders, who hoped that the county’s redistricting committee would come up with district lines that fairly reflect the shift of county population to the north. The county has held a series of public sessions on redistricting, but only the north county session has drawn a crowd.
Currently, south county voters dominate in two of the three board of supervisor seats and three of the five college board seats, although a majority of voters live in the north. The population tallies shifted to the north once again with the release of the 2010 Census.
Key participants included Payson Mayor Kenny Evans, Vice Mayor Michael Hughes former Payson Mayor Cliff Potts, Star Valley Councilor Paty Henderson, President of the Gila Republican Party Don Ascoli and residents from Payson, Pine and Strawberry. They listened to the presentation on the public process to provide input in drawing new district lines based on the 2010 census given by director of elections, Linda Eastlick.
“This district will be watched by the Justice Department to make sure the majority-minority voting blocks are respected,” said Eastlick.
She suggested that the federal government will likely reject any redistricting plan that reduces the percentage of minority voters in any existing district. She also said the committee cannot draw new lines that will put an incumbent in a different district.
That will constrain any district plan, since Gila County Supervisors Shirley Dawson and Michael Pastor live a few blocks from one another in Globe.
Arizona is one of a handful of states that got in trouble with the Justice Department a decade ago for drawing district lines that diluted the political power of minority communities, violating the voting rights act. As a result, the Justice Department will review redistricting plans statewide this year.
The Justice Department’s insistence on protecting minority voting blocks could come into conflict with a constitutional mandate to guarantee each district has nearly the same number of voters. Previous court cases have found that districts can meet the constitutional standard so long as the population of the largest district remains within 10 percent of the smallest district.
Historically, drawing voting district lines in creatively tortured twists and turns has helped political parties and candidates gain and retain power. It has also allowed those convoluted lines to suppress minority voters, for instance splitting up minority communities among several different districts dominated by white voters.
In the official packet of information created by the county it states, “Federal law requires that the U.S. Department of Justice approve all redistricting plans in Arizona ... If the Department of Justice decides that Gila County’s redistricting plan is discriminatory, they will not allow Gila County to use the discriminatory redistricting plan.”
During the public comment section of the presentation, former mayor Cliff Potts said, “I have concerns about the whole process.”
Potts went on to say, “The current make up of District 2 and District 3 marginalizes and disenfranchises whole towns (Star Valley), whole tribes (Tonto Apache) and whole communities (Tonto Basin and Gisela) of people that need fair representation.”
Northern Gila County leaders believe that as Payson’s population grows, the limitations stemming from the majority-minority voting block federal guidelines will force more precincts in northern Gila County to get whittled away and divided between the two southern board of supervisor districts. As a result, no significant pool of north county voters can emerge that could influence an election. This will continue to cause an imbalance in representation, even though the majority of the county population lives in the north.
“There needs to be a way to have at least one of the supervisor’s districts represent a relatively equal population of citizens from both northern and southern Gila County so that the interests of southern Gila County do not always trump our one supervisor’s vote,” said Potts.
Currently, there’s a 30 percent population difference between the largest and smallest Gila Community College districts. The two north-county dominated districts have much larger populations, but far fewer minority voters than the three southern districts.
The three county supervisor districts, by contrast, don’t have huge differences in population. Preliminary figures show that all three remain within 5 percent of the targeted average.
However, the minority populations differ markedly in the three districts.
Supervisor Tommie Martin’s northern district has a minority population of about 10 percent, including 8 percent Hispanic and 2 percent Native American.
Supervisor Shirley Dawson’s district has a 33 percent minority population, with 15 percent Native American and 15 percent Hispanic.
Supervisor Mike Pastor’s district also has a 33 percent minority population, including 29 percent Hispanic and 4 percent Native American.