Congressional and legislative redistricting fights have become some of the most important in the country. Whether the maps are drawn by lawmakers or an independent commission, an unprecedented layer of scrutiny is being placed upon the people who draw the lines used to elect our representatives. Perhaps no state is seeing more scrutiny right now than Arizona, known for its Independent Redistricting Commission. Established by Proposition 106 in 2000, the commission is tasked with drawing both legislative and congressional lines.
Each decade, both parties select two partisan members to serve on the commission from a list compiled by the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments (CACA). The four commissioners then choose a fifth commissioner by majority vote – if one can’t be agreed upon, CACA selects the fifth commissioner. The commission makes decisions by majority vote.
While this sounds like a solid setup on paper, in practice the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission has become a nightmare. Rather than a model for other states to follow, it is showing itself to be fools’ gold – and this is all due to its flawed structure.
A Fatally Flawed Setup
As I’ve explained before, independent redistricting commissions aren’t all they are cracked up to be. Rather than solving gerrymandering, these commissions have instead created a host of new problems. However, out of all of the commission setups, Arizona has perhaps the worst. Rather than reducing polarization and ensuring nonpartisan district lines, the opposite has happened.
Why is this? It’s the commission’s small size and majoritarian nature. Because only three votes are needed to make decisions, the lone independent commission holds essentially all the power. With the other four seats being held by explicitly partisan individuals selected by each party, decisions can be effectively made by a 3-2 vote. This is what happened in 2010, when independent commissioner Colleen Mathis sided with the Democrats on 3-2 votes on virtually all decisions.
No comprise was asked for or needed. In fact, despite her insistence on the fairness of the commission’s maps, Mathis has since admitted that the commission never actually got to know each other. They never functioned as a team, and that’s due to its inherently flawed design.
An Inherently Partisan Affair
The result of the 2010 commission is not in doubt. While some, like my colleague Adam Trencher, argue the maps were fair, it’s indisputable that the congressional maps that have twice contradicted the popular vote (in 2012 and 2020).
Even worse, in 2014 they were only around 150 votes away from awarding Democrats a majority of seats with under 40% of the vote. The lines themselves seemingly fail to follow the priorities listed by the Arizona Constitution because Mathis decided that competitiveness – the least important factor listed – was most important. And because the commission comprises unelected people, none of its members would face any consequences.
As David Daley explained in his book Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count, “The closer one looks, the less independent the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission appears, and the more it looks like a similar partisan fight, moved to an arena with slightly fancier strategies.”
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the celebrations that ensued directly after the first election under the maps: 2012. Despite winning the popular vote by over 180,000 votes – a margin of 8.5 percentage points – Republicans only claimed four of nine seats. All three competitive seats favored Democrats. Immediately following the race, Representative Ed Pastor (D-AZ07) reportedly bragged that “the maps performed like they were designed.”
Pastor explained how the 1st congressional district was redrawn to be substantially more Democratic, how the 2nd congressional district swapped red precincts for blue ones to engineer a more favorable seat for incumbent Democrat Ron Barber, and how the new 9th district absorbed Hispanic areas as far out as Mesa. All of these decisions were made to ensure Democratic candidates would have the best chance of winning – and Democrats won all three seats.
Perhaps most concerning are claims from Scott Freeman, one of the two Republicans on the commission. In Daley’s book, Freeman claimed that key decisions of the commission were made outside of public meetings. He asserted Democratic commissioners worked with Democratic commissioner Linda McNulty to draw the 9th in in a very specific way. This coincides with Pastor’s assertions about the process. A three-judge panel in Harris v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission agreed and asserted that partisanship played a key role in how the neighboring 8th district was drawn.
Turnabout is Fair Play
The start of a new decade means that a new Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission will be assembled. However, now the shoe appears to be on the other foot. Republicans have made a concerted effort to ensure the commission will produce Republican maps. Governor Doug Ducey, a Republican, has ensured that new appointees to the CACA are Republican or Republican-leaning. As of right now, the 15-member board only has three Democratic members.
Moreover, the selection of candidates for the sole independent spot on the commission appear to lean to the right. Out of the five members that could be chosen, four appear to have ties or sympathies to Republicans. Perhaps the most obvious is Robert Wilson, a gun store owner who has hosted Trump rallies. If the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission fails to agree on the fifth member, the seemingly Republican-favoring CACA will decide.
Democrats allege that Republicans are attempting to stack the commission to ensure favorable maps. There appears to be evidence that this is indeed the case. However, this shouldn’t be a surprise given the commission’s setup and the previous decade’s results. Redistricting is an inherently political system and with such a flawed structure, there is no incentive to back down.
A Path to Reform
Clearly, something is not working in Arizona redistricting. A system that was supposed to remove politics from redistricting has instead amplified partisan divides. Decisions that were once made by publicly-accountable elected officials are now being made behind closed doors by partisan operatives. The ramifications of these decisions will be felt for a decade of elections.
The clearest issue in Arizona is the structure: with only a 3-2 majority needed, the wants of one party can be ignored completely. Rather than making bipartisan or nonpartisan decisions, the lone independent is forced to side with partisans on virtually every vote. Bipartisan buy-in is not only not required – it’s arguably impossible.
Other states appear to understand this. In Michigan, the independent commission consists of 13 members – five independents, four Democrats, and four Republicans. At least two members of each group must support the final map, meaning that bipartisan buy-in is required. Ohio’s legislative-driven commission will adopt a similar bipartisan approach. If Arizona wants to salvage the reputation of its independent commission, they’d be wise to do the same.