Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne has filed a lawsuit in federal court to overturn sections of the Voting Rights Act, but the lawsuit will not affect redistricting in Gila County this year, said local officials.
“The portions of the Voting Rights Act requiring preclearance of all voting changes are either archaic, not based in fact, or subject to completely subjective enforcement based on the whim of federal authorities,” Horne said in a statement.
Local officials said the lawsuit would not affect redistricting plans suggested by an independent citizen committee.
“This case will take years to resolve. It will be long after the 2012 elections that Gila County will see the effects,” said Bryan Chambers, chief deputy county attorney for Gila.
In effect, Horne wants to get Arizona off probation with the Justice Department, which has challenged the impact of past redistricting plans on the rights of Hispanic voters. Those problems mean Arizona has to get “preclearance” before adopting a redistricting plan.
Due to past problems in some districts, the Justice Department now reviews every single redistricting plan statewide, said Chambers.
Preclearance allows the federal government to involve itself in the minutia of decision making from the way precinct committee members are appointed, to how many members may sit on a fire district board, to how schools run transportation districts, said Chambers.
If Horne’s lawsuit succeeds, Arizona would no longer need preclearance — but would still have to protect the voting rights of minorities.
“Without preclearance, the state would still be subject to the Voting Rights Act,” said Chambers.
Passed in 1965, the Voting Rights Act bans any state from creating a voting practice or process that denies or reduces a citizen’s ability to vote based on race or color.
In 1972, the federal government put Arizona on its list of states requiring preclearance because the state did not have bi-lingual ballots. Since then, the DOJ has held that some district lines have limited minority voting rights and so the state has remained on DOJ’s list.
Currently nine other states require preclearance from the DOJ, Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.
Arizona has since fixed the bilingual ballot issue, but the government continues to refuse to release Arizona from the intense scrutiny of the DOJ, thanks largely to questions raised about the impact on Hispanic voters of past redistricting plans in Pima and Maricopa counties.
Gila County could “bail out” of the preclearance requirement, but only if the county, its cities, districts and any adjacent counties manage to avoid upsetting the DOJ for at least 10 years, said Chambers.
“It’s a very interesting lawsuit, but if they (Gila supervisors) don’t follow through with preclearance requirements, the board will be in trouble with DOJ,” said Chambers.
Asked for comment, board members agreed with Chambers:
“Until we see direction (from the county attorney’s office), we will proceed as normal,” said Supervisor Shirley Dawson.
“I don’t think it will affect anything we are doing at this time. I would think that once there is a decision, things will be different,” said Supervisor Mike Pastor.
“It will be years before a decision, but I think it’s important they begin now,” said Tommie Martin of District 1.
That means the county will finish work on district plans for the board of supervisors and the Gila Community College board.
A redistricting committee recommended six alternative maps. The supervisors will settle on a redistricting plan for each entity, then seek Department of Justice approval of the maps.
So far, most of the controversy in the process has focused on the districts for the supervisors, which currently has one north county district and two districts dominated by south county.
The Tonto Apache Tribe has proposed a map that would move the precinct that includes the reservation into a different district. This proposed plan would affect both minority percentages in two districts and the political balance between north and south county.