House panel OKs changes to redistricting commission

Republican state representatives advanced a resolution to overhaul the membership of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission in ways that some worry will disenfranchise minority voting blocs.

Story by Ben Giles, Arizona Capitol Times

On a 4-3 party-line vote March 22, GOP lawmakers on the House Government Committee approved SCR1034, which would increase the number of commissioners on the IRC to nine from five. The resolution’s sponsor, Senate President Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, has said he’s hoping to make improvements to the redistricting measures to ensure that the process of redrawing Arizona’s legislative and congressional district boundaries is as nonpartisan as possible.

But at every turn in the legislative process, Democrats have rejected his efforts to alter the IRC. Yarbrough has offered multiple amendments to address those concerns, but Democrats say the resolution – which would still need to be approved by voters to take effect – would simply politicize the process.

On March 22, critics of SCR1034 focused on a change in the rate at which the size of Arizona’s legislative districts may vary. Under current law, the largest and smallest district may not vary in the size of their voting population by a more than 10 percent deviation.

Yarbrough proposed changing the deviation limit to plus or minus 2 percent, the same as congressional district boundaries, and he refused to budge from that position. The current deviations of up to 10 percent create a situation where votes in some districts are worth more than votes in others, Yarbrough said. In the last redistricting round, some districts were greatly overpopulated, he said.

“You will see even more unfairness built into the system if we don’t change it” before the next census, Yarbrough told the committee.

Joel Edman, executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network, said that change could result in more cities and towns split between two legislative districts in the name of arguments favoring “one person, one vote.” Even with larger deviations, states must still make good faith efforts to not have districts vary too much in size, but “allowance for small deviations within constitutional limits can make a real difference in the map-drawing process,” Edman said.

“It can mean the difference between leaving a small city or town intact, or carving it up. It can help keep rural districts relatively compact, rather than stretching out their lines to take in yet another population center,” he said.

Lauren Bernally, policy analyst for the Navajo Nation’s Human Rights Office, said that’s the case for the legislative district covering her tribal lands. Creating stricter deviations between districts may dilute the voting influence of the Navajo Nation, she said.

Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, criticized Yarbrough for failing to address the concerns of minority communities before introducing his resolution. Yarbrough said he relied on legislative staff to draft SCR1034, and that his own observations guided the resolution.

“I think that the shortcomings of the IRC are relatively apparent, and I’m trying to do whatever I can to make sure it is more fair, more bipartisan and less likely to be hijacked,” he said.