The Gila County Board of Supervisors Tuesday rejected the widely supported redistricting plan proposed by the Tonto Apache Tribe and instead agreed to focus on three supervisorial maps that will make only minor changes in current district boundaries.
Ironically, while rejecting any change that would reduce the number of Hispanic and Native American voters in the supervisorial districts, they also agreed to make additional changes in district lines for Gila Community College that resulted in “packing” too many minority voters in a single district.
The vote left many frustrated members of the Gila County Redistricting Advisory Committee who wondered aloud why they’d spent months laboring over maps all rendered meaningless by the legal limitations on redistricting.
“This whole process was a waste of time,” said Mac Feezor, one of the committee members who spent months studying alternative maps.
“It’s just politics,” said Supervisor Tommie Martin.
On Tuesday, the supervisors had one more look at proposed maps for the board of supervisors and the Gila Community College District before deciding which maps to submit to the Department of Justice.
Consultant Bruce Adelson, a former lawyer for the Department of Justice, advised the supervisors that the voting rights act’s protection of minority voting rights will take precedence over the constitutional mandate to make the population in each district the same.
Retrogression is the legal term for reducing minority voting strength by shifting voters from one district to another. For example, cases based on racial gerrymandering in the South have established that once a district has more than 50 percent minority voters, new boundaries can’t take the total number of minorities below that 50-percent line.
The Tonto Apache map would have reduced the overall minority percentage in District 3 from 50 percent to about 44 percent. Any reduction of minority percentages would prompt the Justice Department to reject the change, said the consultants.
Both the Payson and Star Valley town councils had urged the board of supervisors to adopt the Tonto Apache map, mostly because it would more accurately reflect the shift of the county’s population to the north.
But the county’s consultants determined in their analysis of the voting patterns in the three supervisor districts that because of the minority voter blocs in District 2 and District 3, the existing boundaries must remain essentially unchanged.
“It’s (retrogression) like a 30-foot concrete wall — you can’t get past it,” said Adelson.
That advice sharply limits any changes in existing district lines, said Linda Eastlick, director of elections.
Eastlick offered a list of requests for the board to consider in settling on which maps to submit to the Department of Justice.
First, District 2 has to gain population as a result of the 2010 census.
Second, the supervisors should address the Tonto Apache request to move from District 2 into District 3, which already includes the San Carlos and White Mountain Apache tribes.
Third, the current minority voting strength in Districts 2 and 3 must remain the same and not be reduced.
Fourth, supervisors must maintain the Hispanic and Native American voting blocs in District 3.
Due to voting retrogression, Eastlick said the board cannot accommodate the request of the Tonto Apache to move their ancestral homeland of Gisela into District 3 along with the reservation land.
With those details on the table, the board examined the four alternative supervisor district maps on which they had gathered public comments from a series of six meetings over the first two weeks of September.
Complicating their discussion, members of the public had also introduced four additional maps to the mix. Feezor created three new maps taking into consideration all of the factors Eastlick had described and the population shift to the north.
Supervisor Mike Pastor immediately suggested setting those three maps aside because it “will be difficult for the Department of Justice (DOJ) to make a determination.”
The supervisors ultimately declined to submit Feezor’s maps because the consultants declared them illegal.
Martin asked them to explain how the maps were illegal.
“The standard is a comparison of the benchmark of the number of majority-minority voting districts. You may not have less minority-majority districts, and all three of these maps do that,” said Adelson.
David Cook, a resident of Globe, also sent in a map. In his public comments, Cook echoed the frustration the members of the Gila County Redistricting Advisory Committee had.
“When I submitted my maps, one of the comments I received from a supervisor was, ‘It’s a little late in the game,’ but it’s hard to play the game when it keeps changing.”
Supporting Cook’s maps was Ed Dawson, husband of Supervisor Shirley Dawson and a judge on the San Carlos reservation, who said that since the population had shifted to the north, the redistricting maps should reflect that shift. He did agree, though, that he could live with the maps tweaked by the consultants.
The supervisors declined to submit Cook’s map.
After deciding that supervisor district maps A, B and C presented viable choices, the board agreed it would settle on one of the three maps on Oct. 3.
Turning to the much less contested community college maps, the consultants advised there was a “packing” issue with District 5.
Packing occurs when district lines concentrate overly large percentages of minority voters in a single district, which judges have ruled unconstitutional.
In District 5 of the community college maps, approximately 70 percent of the voters are minorities — most of them (about 60 percent) living on the San Carlos Apache reservation. Hispanics comprise about 10 percent of District 5. That concentration creates a “packed” district, said Adelson.
“What my advice would be is to move some District 5 Latinos to District 3 or 4 ... to increase their ability to vote for their candidate of choice (in those districts),” said Adelson.
The supervisors closed the meeting by voting to move supervisor plans A, B and C forward without any additional tweaking and to adjust the existing community college maps to reduce packing.
The next meeting the Board of Supervisors will have on redistricting is scheduled for Monday, Oct. 3 at 10 a.m.