Republican state lawmakers are pushing a November ballot proposition that would ask voters to overhaul the panel that draws Arizona's political boundaries — a move that could affect which party holds power at the state Capitol.
The proposition would also give state legislators the authority to potentially sketch their own district boundaries, as well as those of Arizona's members of Congress.
Supporters said the proposal is intended to make the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission — a bipartisan panel that was created to take that power away from the Legislature — larger and, thereby, more bipartisan.
But Democrats and voter-advocacy groups say it's a veiled attempt to dismantle the commission and let state lawmakers pick their voters through gerrymandering.
On Wednesday, the state Senate's Government Committee voted, 4-3, along partisan lines, to advance the proposal, which faces a standard legal review before a vote in the full Senate.
The commission was created in 2001, through a voter-approved amendment to the state Constitution, so any changes would require a vote of the people. It draws new district lines for Congress and the Legislature every 10 years, after population shifts shown in the U.S. Census.
Why overhaul the commission?
Republicans in the Legislature have long sought to curb the commission's authority. They complain that the commission favored Democrats with the legislative and congressional lines drawn in 2011.
They revived those efforts this session with Senate Concurrent Resolution 1034, the proposal that would put changes on the ballot, including provisions to increase the number of commissioners and overhaul their appointment process.
The resolution also would create an option for the Legislature to sidestep the commission by creating its own district maps and asking voters to approve them.
Senate President Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, said he's sponsoring the measure because the commission's current makeup — with two Democrats, two Republicans and one independent — allows the independent person to effectively become the state's redistricting czar.
SCR 1034 would expand the commission to eight members, with four Democrats, four Republicans and two independents. Yarbrough said that would force both sides to work together on new maps.
He noted that before Republicans had qualms with the commission, it was Democrats in 2001 who complained the independent commission was biased because of maps that they said favored Republicans.
"I simply would like to see the commission operate more fairly and in a more bipartisan fashion," Yarbrough told lawmakers before Wednesday's vote.
Should politicians draw districts?
After a tense debate, the Senate committee's three Democrats voted to oppose the resolution: Sens. Juan Mendez, of Tempe; Robert Meza, of Phoenix; and Lupe Contreras, of Avondale.
Mendez said the proposal has a single purpose: Letting the Legislature's majority party pick its own voters.
“I can’t imagine why anybody lets their politicians draw their own districts," he said. “It only leads to gridlock so the Legislature can come in and propose its own maps."
Mendez said creating a commission with an even instead of an odd number suggests Republicans intentionally want to ensure gridlock and thus allow the Legislature to draw the map.
The commission has been a Republican target in recent years. In the last decade, the commission defended itself in five legal battles, including two before the U.S. Supreme Court. It triumphed to continue as Arizona's political mapmaker.
The next redistricting commission will be seated in spring 2021 and will draw new district lines for Congress and the state Legislature following population shifts shown in the U.S. Census.
In addition to Yarbrough, SCR 1034 is sponsored by six powerful Republican leaders from both chambers of the state Legislature, including House Speaker J.D. Mesnard.
Would gridlock be inevitable?
Joel Edman, executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network, an open-government watchdog group, said SCR 1034 also would create problems with the appointment of commissioners themselves.
Under current law, commissioners are appointed from a pool of 25 applicants recommended by the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments. From that pool, Republican and Democratic leaders in the Legislature pick two appointees from their parties.
Then, the four partisan-aligned commissioners select someone — who must be a registered independent — from the pool of recommended candidates.
SCR 1034 would upend that process and allow party leaders in the Legislature to select all eight commissioners, including the two independents.
Edman and Democrats said that makes the selections inherently more partisan, even with commissioners who are registered independents, and could lead to a four-to-four tie.
“They’ll find the most partisan independents they can find," Edman said of commission appointments. "The voters know a power grab when they see one. I think that’s a ticking time bomb that would be in the system."
Yarbrough agreed that the independent commissioners legislative leaders would select are "likely to be partisan independents.”
However, he said, having an evenly-divided commission would be beneficial because it creates a scenario where "people are going to have to work together" on bipartisan maps.