Justice Department Upholds New Districts, But Lawsuits Filed

Elections free to proceed in redrawn districts

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The U.S. Justice Department has determined legislative maps drawn up by the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission don’t violate federal law protecting the rights of minorities — but conservative Republicans have filed twin lawsuits saying the maps do violate their rights.

The Justice Department’s prompt approval of the congressional and state legislative maps drawn up by the voter-created redistricting commission means that this fall’s elections will take place in the new districts, since courts probably can’t act on the Republican challenges before the elections — with primaries in August and the general election in November.

The Independent Commission’s maps split Gila County in two and moved northern Gila County into almost entirely new districts.

In Congress, Rim Country shifted from a Flagstaff-dominated District 1 to a western Arizona-dominated District 4.

Incumbent Congressman Paul Gosar moved from Flagstaff to Prescott to run in the reconfigured district. He faces tough opposition from State Senator Ron Gould and Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu in the Republican primary. So far, activist Mikel Weisser and teacher and state representative W. John Williamson are contending in the Democratic primary.

In the state Legislature, the new district lines cut Gila County into three sections. Northern Gila County ended up in a Flagstaff-dominated state legislative District 6, which includes Sedona, Camp Verde, Williams, Heber and Snowflake. Republicans have distinct but not insurmountable registration edge.

In the Senate, incumbent Snowflake Republican Sen. Sylvia Allen decided not to run again. The Senate race now features a matchup between Flagstaff state Representative Tom Chabin, a Democrat, and Heber incumbent Representative Chester Crandell. In the House race for the redrawn District 6, Republican incumbent Brenda Barton is running for re-election after moving to Payson, but other candidates have yet to emerge.

The quick Justice Department approval of the maps submitted by the Independent Redistricting Commission stands in sharp contrast to the situation 10 years ago, when the Justice Department rejected the Legislature’s maps after concluding the district lines fragmented minority neighborhoods, preventing black and Hispanic voters from having a chance to elect a lawmaker of the same race.

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New Congressional District

This time, the Justice Department concluded that the commission had adequately safeguarded minority voting rights by drawing district lines that protected the political clout of black, Hispanic and Native American voters.

The decision means that candidates can run in the redrawn districts, although the lawsuit filed by Republican groups on Friday could conceivably force a fresh redrawing of state legislative district lines. The Friday filings asked for a three-judge federal panel to draw new congressional district lines next year and new state legislative district lines before the August elections.

The lawsuits maintained that the Independent Redistricting Commission packed some districts with Republican voters to give Democrats an advantage in adjoining districts.

The commission “systematically overpopulated Republican-plurality districts and underpopulated Democrat-plurality districts, the obvious goal being to maximize the number of Democratic districts,” the lawsuit maintains.

Republicans have complained that although Independent Redistricting Chairwoman Chris Mathis is a registered Independent, she’s actually a closet Democrat, who tilted the process in favor of the minority party. Gov. Jan Brewer at one point removed Mathis, but a judge reinstated her on the grounds the governor had offered no clear evidence of misconduct before removing her. The Legislature has refused to appropriate the money to cover the costs of the Independent Redistricting Commission’s defense of the chairwoman after that action.

The voters set up the Independent Commission after a redistricting debacle in 2000, when the U.S. Justice Department rejected the Legislature’s maps on the grounds they violated the federal Voting Rights Act, passed in the 1960s to prevent mostly southern states from keeping blacks from voting by manipulating district lines.

The 2000 Arizona voter initiative required the redistricting commission to create as many “competitive” districts as possible — districts drawn in such a way that either party had a chance of winning. In Arizona, Republicans, Democrats and Independents each represent about a third of the registered voters, although Independents more often vote with Republicans.

However, traditionally blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans all heavily favor Democrats. That means that district boundaries that maximize the number of seats minority candidates have a chance of winning will generally favor Democrats. When Republicans had control of the district line drawing in 2000, they often concentrated minority voters in safe Democratic districts, which increased the number of adjoining seats Republicans could win. Ironically, the Independent Redistricting Commission reversed that approach by concentrating on the federal mandate to maximize minority voting clout and the state voter mandate to maximize the number of competitive districts.

The shift has upended Rim Country’s representation in both Congress and the state Legislature.

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New Legislative District

When it came to drawing congressional district lines, the Independent Redistricting Commission turned the vast, rural district that used to include Rim Country into a huge district that encompassed as many Indian Tribes as possible — including the San Carlos Apache Reservation in southern Gila County. To balance out populations, the commission split mostly white and Republican northern Gila County from heavily Hispanic, Native American and Democratic southern Gila County.

As a result, Payson, Prescott, Cottonwood, Heber and Snowflake all ended up the tail on a dog dominated by towns on the banks of the Colorado River, including parts of Yuma, Lake Havasu City and Kingman.

Rather than fight it out in a rematch with Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick in a relatively balanced district, Gosar forsook Flagstaff for a house he already owned in Prescott so he could run in a district where Republicans have a roughly 20 percent registration advantage over Democrats.

The nine Congressional districts ended up with almost identical populations — about 710,224 in each district. The population for the whole of Rim Country is about 30,000, which makes it easy to ignore in any Congressional district.

District 4 has a population that’s 76 percent white, 18 percent Hispanic and less than 2 percent Native American or black. Republicans represent 42 percent of the registered voters, Democrats about 23 percent and Independents about 35 percent. On average, Republican candidates get about 64 percent of the vote and Democrats about 36 percent of the vote.

The 30 state legislative districts ended up with between 204,000 and 221,000 voters each. That variation in population represents one of the key points in the lawsuit seeking a forced redrawing of the line.

District 6 has 214,000 voters, including most of northern Gila County. About 74 percent of the population is white, 16 percent Hispanic and 6 percent Native American.

The registered voters are 38 percent Republican, 29 percent Democrat and 33 percent Independent. On average, Republicans draw about 54 percent of the vote and Democrats about 46 percent.

Statewide, the commission created 12 state legislative districts where Democrats have the edge and 18 where Republicans have the advantage.

The voting patterns showed the two parties within less than 10 percent of one another in only four of the 30 state legislative districts and in three of the 9 congressional districts. The Flagstaff-Navajo-White Mountains-based District 1 has become one of the true toss-up districts, once the Republican voters of northern Gila County shifted to District 4.

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