Welcome to Point/Counterpoint, where Elections Daily writers will provide differing perspectives on various topics. This first edition pits Eric Cunningham and Adam Trencher against each other on the topic of Arizona’s congressional map, which was passed by the Independent Redistricting Commission in 2011.
This map has been a topic of heated debate since it was proposed, with Republicans arguing it is a partisan gerrymander and Democrats arguing it’s a fair map. In this debate, Eric will be positing that the map is a gerrymander while Adam will argue that it is not. You can find Adam Trencher’s argument at this link. Without further ado, let the debate begin!
Arizona’s congressional districts have been the subject of rigorous debate for years now. While Democrats have attempted to defend this map, it’s clear from both abstract numbers and practice that the map is actually a partisan gerrymander.
The case for this is fairly simple: Arizona was drawn like a gerrymander, looks like a gerrymander, and acts like a gerrymander. I’ll explain all three of these problems in this article, starting with the process.
A rigged process
I’ve written before on the subject of independent redistricting commissions. As I explained back in December, the map fails on basically every level and truly gives independent commissions a bad look. To put it bluntly: redistricting in Arizona is fundamentally broken, and this map is the clearest example of the problem.
The idea of an independent commission is good. Taking politics and legislators out of the process should, in theory, result in fairer maps. Unfortunately, Arizona’s five-member commission has a fundamental flaw: it’s too small and doesn’t require consensus. Two members are Republicans and two are Democrats, with the remaining spot being a lone independent who is supposed to be impartial and neutral. Unfortunately, only a simple majority is required to make decisions, meaning the independent commissioner has basically complete control over the process.
2011 provided the perfect example of this. Colleen Mathis was selected as the lone independent on the panel. She did not disclose that her husband was the treasurer for a Democratic candidate, arguably violated the open meetings law, and sided with the two Democrats on everything. Most importantly, she chose a Democratic consulting firm to help draw the maps. You’ll be shocked to learn, then, that the map they passed was immediately anticipated to favor Democrats and has favored them in practice.
It isn’t compact
Equally egregious was how Mathis outright refused to follow the law. The criteria the commission has to satisfy are, in decreasing order of importance:
- VRA compliance
- Equal in population
- Appear compact and contiguous
- Respects communities of interest
- Uses visible geographic features, like county or city borders
- Electorally competitive, provided the above are met
Rather than follow this criteria, Mathis decided that competitiveness – the least important of the criteria – was the most important. The result is an ugly, nonsensical map that fails to respect any reasonable standards of compactness.
In their examination of the map, the Washington Post gave it a 70.7/100 (0 being the least gerrymandered and 100 being the most). This score was very similar to aggressive GOP gerrymanders in states like Florida, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Individual districts fared no better; AZ-04, a Republican vote sink, scored a whopping 87.9 on the scale, while AZ-09 scored an 85 and AZ-01 scored a 79.6. The numbers don’t lie: the Arizona map just isn’t compact.
It isn’t a fair map
The 2012 and 2014 debacles
On paper, Arizona’s congressional map seemed okay for Republicans. If you went by what the media said, four out of the nine seats (4, 5, 6, 8) were pretty solidly Republican and two were solidly Democratic (3 and 7). The remaining three districts (1, 2, and 9) were tossups. Sounds good, right? The problem is that’s a lie.
To start with, AZ-09 was never competitive and was never designed to be. This was a Kerry-Obama district that would have gone for Obama by four points as McCain swept to a nine-point victory. It has remained solidly Democratic since. AZ-01 and AZ-02, meanwhile, voted for Mitt Romney by only two points as he recored a nine-point statewide victory. In other words, the two median seats in the state were seven points to the left of the state.
It’s no surprise, then, that Democrats managed to win all three “competitive” seats. Although Republicans won the statewide vote 52.1%-43.6% (a margin of over 184,000 votes), Democrats won a majority of seats. 2014 proved to be almost as bad: Republicans won the statewide vote 55.7%-39.4% (a whopping 16-point margin, and this was without even running a candidate in AZ-07) but only reclaimed AZ-02 by 161 votes. In other words, Democrats were only a fraction of the vote away from winning five of nine seats with under 40% of the vote.
That, my friends, is what we call a gerrymander.
No, the map isn’t fairer now
A common argument from Democrats is that the Arizona map is substantially fairer now. This is false. Although Republicans were able to hold the majority in 2016, they lost it in 2018 while narrowly losing the statewide vote 50.4%-48.7% (a difference of 40,000 votes). It’s worth noting that Republicans again failed to run a candidate in AZ-07, meaning they might have been able to win a majority of votes statewide.
Regardless, in what was essentially a 50/50 race, the two closest seats (AZ-01 and AZ-02) went Democratic by… 7.7 and 9.5 percentage points. This is substantially to the left of Arizona as a whole, as the electoral record above showed.
How did it compare in the other races? Well, they also voted consistently to the left of the state there as well, with AZ-01 doing so by around two to three percentage points and AZ-02 doing so by five to nine percentage points. As it was in 2012, the map remains a gerrymander that would require a considerable Republican wave to unseat any incumbent.
Arizona’s map fails almost every test. The districts were drawn in a partisan manner and are erratic and drawn almost randomly, with a failure to respect city or county lines – and the result was a map that leans far to the left of the state as a whole. By any objective measure, the maps failed to meet the standard one expects from an independent commission and they truly deserve their label as a gerrymander.