Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Federal Voting Rights Act is Arizona’s redistricting bogeyman

We should find out next week if Gov. Jan Brewer will make good on her threats from this week and impeach Colleen Mathis, the chairwoman of the Independent Redistricting Commission, or any other member of the commission.

Brewer alleges gross misconduct by the commission, including failing to follow requirements of the independent redistricting commission act, bid rigging and open meetings law violations. Commissioners deny any wrongdoing.

Brewer is picking the wrong fight. The problem is not the commission, it’s Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act that requires Arizona to get the blessing of the U.S. Justice Department on any change it makes to voting districts, a process called preclearance.

The Act’s intentions nearly 50 years ago was to right 100 years of wrongs in several states that imposed restrictions on voting by racial minorities, mostly southern blacks.

Arizona landed on the list of racist states in 1975 because a change in the act that year added so-called “language minorities” to the list of discriminations and required states to have bilingual ballots. Arizona created a bilingual ballot, but not fast enough to suit the federal government and so Arizona got lumped in with Alabama, Texas, South Carolina, Mississippi and a couple of others as states that have violated the act and require federal supervision of their elections.

And once a state is on the list it’s almost impossible to get off because it creates a political power structure that few politicians want to change.

The law packs Arizona’s Latinos into a handful of districts and they then vote for a Latino representative who becomes quite powerful and who doesn’t want anything done to reduce that power, such as unpack Latinos from those districts.

Republicans love it because Latinos tend to vote Democratic so it gives Republicans a strong argument that Republican-majority districts have to be created to offset the racially gerrymandered Latino Democratic-majority districts. Moreover, Republicans can mostly ignore Latino issues because they don’t need Latinos to get elected.

When the redistricting commission set about drawing new lines on the map the first thing it looked for was where all the Latinos were. Then it drew lines around them to make sure the new map would pass muster with the feds. Then it set about redistricting the rest of the state.

Sounds kind of racist, doesn’t’ it?

And that’s the great irony of the Voting Rights Act, it uses racism as a cure for racism (irrespective of whether that past racism even exists anymore.).

Without the onerous preclearance requirements, the commission could have used the two most important tenants of the redistricting law – creating competitive districts and respecting communities of interest – to create a fair, competitive map. It would create an Arizona where politicians have to win an election on the soundness of their ideas and the quality of their character, not merely by the three-letter party designation after their name on the ballot.

Attorney General Tom Horne is suing to overturn Section 5 but that will take years and won’t have any effect on this round of redistricting.

Brewer and the Legislature can toss out this entire commission, empanel a new one and start over but it won’t make a bit of difference. As long as the federal government requires the state’s Latinos be the starting point for drawing a map, no commission will be able to follow the redistricting law to anyone’s satisfaction.

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