The Independent Redistricting Commission’s proposed congressional and state legislative maps that fragment Gila County among multiple districts drew almost universal condemnation Wednesday during a hearing in Payson.
Driven by the need to protect the clout of Hispanic and Native American voters, the commission’s proposed map would split the 50,000 Gila County residents among three different state legislative districts and two different congressional districts.
Voters established the independent commission in 2000 to prevent the party in power from gerrymandering district lines to benefit one party over another.
Almost none of the 70 people who showed up liked the rough draft of the resulting maps.
The state legislative map released this week would put all of northern Gila County in a district that would include the Verde Valley, Sedona and Flagstaff. Currently, the whole county resides in District 5, which consists mostly of three, sprawling eastern Arizona counties.
The redistricting was triggered by the 2010 Census, which documented the huge differences in populations in the existing districts and added one congressional seat.
“We’d like to see Gila County made whole,” said Larry Stephenson, representing the Eastern Arizona Counties Association.
“You undid a lot of good work that had already been done” to forge links between rural, eastern Arizona counties.
Shirley Dye, a Tea Party activist, criticized both the congressional and legislative maps for splitting up counties in an effort to create two purely rural districts and to concentrate Native American voters. “That really turned out to be a huge problem. We’re not happy with this map. We don’t have any community of interest, we’ll have a congressman from one area and state lawmakers from a completely different area.”
Don Ascoli, head of the county planning commission and a leading Gila County Republican, said, “I don’t know where you don’t get it. I don’t see what Payson has to do with Yuma or Lake Havasu City. We’ve worked very hard to do things as a county and these maps split us up.”
Commission Chairman Colleen Mathis acknowledged the criticism, but said the commission had to comply with federal law protecting the rights of minority voters and then balance a sometimes contradictory list of criteria, including an effort to create as many “competitive” districts as possible.
“We’ve obviously carved up the state in a way you’re not happy with,” said Mathis, an Independent on a commission with two Democrats and two Republicans. “But it was really quite a puzzle — and a challenge — to bring all these criteria together.”
The state legislative map would put northern Gila County in District 5, which would include Sedona, the Verde Valley and Flagstaff.
Most of southern Gila County would end up in District 7, a mostly Native American district that would include the Navajo, Hopi, White Mountain Apache and San Carlos Apache reservations. In addition, a lightly populated chunk of Gila County around Roosevelt Lake would end up in District 8, dominated by voters in Pinal County.
The congressional map, by contrast places northern Gila County in a sprawling rural District 4 with the Verde Valley, Prescott and the entire western quarter of the state fronting on the Colorado River. Southern Gila County would end up in a rural district encompassing the Flagstaff, the Navajo Reservation and the entire eastern third of the state.
Mathis said the commission struggled with sometimes-contradictory requirements in coming up with the draft maps.
First, they had to create districts with nearly equal populations — 710,000 people in each of the nine congressional districts and 210,000 in each of the 30 state legislative districts. Each state district has two House members and one senator.
Next, the commission had to come up with maps that would pass muster with the U.S. Justice Department. The Justice Department will automatically review the state’s redistricting plan.
In addition, after an earlier round of hearings the commission resolved to create at least two largely rural districts, with very few voters from Maricopa or Pima counties.
Those two factors took priority and drove the line-drawing process, according to the commission.
Next, the commission considered equally a number of criteria, like not breaking up cities and counties, protecting “communities of interest,” making the districts “compact,” taking into account natural barriers like mountain ranges and creating as many districts as possible in which either Republican or Democrats stood a chance of winning.
The congressional draft map would feature two mostly rural districts, three districts along the Mexico border, five districts in Maricopa County and two districts in Tucson. Two of the districts would have big minority populations.
The legislative draft map would create 10 districts with big minority populations, including one mostly Native American district. Of the 30 districts, nine are mostly rural, 17 are mostly within Maricopa County and three are mostly in Pima County.
However, some of those key criteria went to war with one another.
For instance, the Voting Rights Act protecting the rights of minority voters requires map-makers to create some districts with a large enough concentration of minority voters that they have a chance of electing a candidate of their own race. That rule had a huge impact on Gila County when it came to drawing state legislative district lines.
Previously, the state district that included the Navajo Reservation had a population that was 59 percent Native American. The commission considered a map that would have kept Gila County intact, but it would have reduced the Native American percentage in that neighboring district to 52 percent, which the commission decided would provoke the opposition of the Justice Department.
So the draft map added the San Carlos Apache Reservation to the more northern district, which raised the Native American population there to 62 percent.
But the juggle to protect minority voting rights forced strangely shaped districts throughout the state — and watered down the effort to create competitive districts.
However, two federal requirements — equal populations and protecting minority voting rights generally trumped the state criteria, including things like keeping counties and towns and “communities of interest” in the same district.
Commission Vice Chairman Scott Day Freeman said, “I agree there need to be changes in these maps. I’m going to try to make it to as many of the 25 hearings as possible.”
Only one participant offered even tepid praise for the draft maps.
“Thank you for all the arduous work you’re doing,” Robert Hershberger told the volunteer commissioners, who have been harshly criticized — mostly by officials statewide.
“I do think there is some community of interest between Prescott, Sedona, Payson and even Bullhead City,” since they’re all small, rural communities dependent on tourism and outdoor recreation. You can rest assured, no Democrats will be elected in (state legislative) District 6.”
District 6 would include northern Gila County and would have a population that’s 78 percent white. The party breakdown for the district would include 38 percent Republicans, 29 Democratic and 27 percent “other.” However, Republicans in the past three elections have garnered 56 percent of the vote, running well ahead of the registration numbers — which shows most of the Independents in the proposed districts end up siding with Republicans.
But Hershberger voiced the only mild note of support for the draft map in the course of the two-hour hearing.
More typical was Paul LaBonte’s comment. “It looks like someone took an egg and threw it up against this map. No one splits up counties unless they live in a mad house.”
“It’ll turn a red state into a blue state,” called out one member of the audience.
Bill Rouhr complained he couldn’t figure out where the lines ran on maps mostly innocent of the locations of towns. “Payson isn’t even on the map — we think we are, but we’re not on this map.”