Originally Published: June 26, 2017 5:55 a.m.
PHOENIX — An effort by Arizona voters to take politics out of the once-a-decade process of redrawing the political lines for U.S. House seats appears to have largely succeeded, based on an analysis of district inequities across the nation.
Arizona has among the lowest measures of unequal representation among the states analyzed by The Associated Press, coming in fourth out of 43 states in the 2016 election. Republicans won five of nine congressional seats in 2016, a result that largely mirrors the split between Democratic and Republican votes cast statewide.
But that doesn’t mean the process overseen by a five-member panel designed to remove it from the Legislature wasn’t both highly political and rife with highly charged disputes. Republicans remain bitter about the congressional district maps adopted before the 2012 election.
Scott Freeman, a Phoenix attorney and Republican who served on the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, said the analysis leaves out a crucial element — federal voting rights law that required two of the state’s nine districts to enable minorities to elect lawmakers. Creating those two Democratic-heavy districts left the commission with only seven others to spread the remaining Republicans.
Freeman said that if the redistricting process were truly fair, he believes the GOP would win six if not all seven of those seats.
“Unless you do something with some of the other redistricting criteria and apply them sort of unevenly across the map, like the competitiveness criteria, to give one party a leg up. And that’s one of my bones of contention, is that’s what happened,” he said.
Democrat Chad Campbell, who was minority leader in the House and appointed one of Democratic commissioners, called Freeman’s view ludicrous.
“I think if you look at the results both congressionally and legislatively, you have pretty good maps that are pretty reflective of the population of the state, and also took into account geographic uniqueness, communities of interest, all of the things that they have to take into consideration,” Campbell said. “Unfortunately, there are people who always try to politicize the process.”
The AP scrutinized the outcomes of all 435 U.S. House races and about 4,700 state House and Assembly seats up for election last year using a new statistical method of calculating partisan advantage. It’s designed to detect cases in which one party may have won, widened or retained its grip on power through political gerrymandering.
The AP analysis was based on votes cast for candidates, not party registration, which in Arizona also include a very large number who don’t name a party and are considered independents. Republican House candidates got 52 percent of all votes and Democrats 48 percent, and the GOP won five of the nine Arizona seats.
In state House races, Arizona came out in the middle of the pack, with Republicans picking up 35 of 60 House seats. A perfectly equal vote distribution would have seen Democrats picking up nearly three more seats.
Voters pulled redistricting from the Legislature in 2000, with Proponents of Proposition 106 arguing political lines were being gerrymandered for political advantage. The commission is made up of two Republicans and two Democrats appointed by legislative leaders and one independent chosen from a list compiled by the state Commission on Appellate Court Appointments.
The panel was immediately thrown into controversy after it began work in 2011. Then-Republican Gov. Jan Brewer removed Chairwoman Colleen Mathis, accusing her of neglect of duty and misconduct by saying she ignored constitutional processes and criteria for mapping. The Arizona Supreme Court soon re-instated Mathis, ruling Brewer had no legitimate reason for removing her.
When the final maps were adopted in early 2012, a series of court challenges ensued. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the legality of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission itself to draw House maps without the Legislature’s oversight and the legislative district maps. A third challenge to congressional map brought by a group of voters was rejected by a state court judge this year, and the commission finally disbanded this month.