Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Arizona redistricting commission law in need of modest reform

Now that the Arizona Supreme Court has poked a pin into the extraordinary hubris of Gov. Jan Brewer and the Republican legislative super majority, more reasonable ideas about what to do about Arizona’s Independent Redistricting Commission are on the table.

The commission’s enabling legislation, passed by voters in 2000, clearly needs revision. The outrage over the current commission’s work is rooted in the failings of that ballot measure’s language.

As has been written here before, the language of the ballot measure that amended the state constitution set the commission up to fail in a number of ways, one of which didn’t become clear until this year.

The law requires the commission – two Republicans, two Democrats and an Independent who serves as chairman – consider six criteria when redistricting the state. The commission must create districts that are equal in population, compact and contiguous, respect communities of interest, use geographical and political boundaries, comply with the federal voting rights act and create competitive districts as long as competition does not do significant harm to the other five provisions of the law.

As we’ve seen, that’s impossible, at least in regard to creating public consensus that the commission drew a good map. One person’s community of interest is another person’s competitiveness. It’s a given that just like 10 years ago, as soon as the commission adopts the final map it will get sued, creating confusion over who’s in which district for the 2012 elections.

Another problem the law created that didn’t fully manifest itself until this go-round, is the extraordinary power vested in the Independent chairman. When Republicans and Democrats split on a mapping decision, a single person decides the outcome. For issues of such importance -  the apportionment of political power – such decisions should not rest in the hands of a single person.

Nothing the Legislature or voters do in 2012 can stop the lawsuits or reduce the power of the commission’s chairman.

But while this issue is still on the minds of voters it makes sense for the Legislature to refer reform measures to the ballot now rather than some other time closer to 2020.

Republican outrage over the commission’s work is so intense that one idea is to ask voters to repeal the act and return redistricting to the hands of the Legislature. That’s foolish and petulant and clearly not what voters want judging by their outrage over the attempt to oust the commission’s chairwoman over dubious and untried claims of misconduct.

But a couple of ideas proposed by Republicans have significant merit. One is to expand the commission to nine members – three Republicans, three Democrats and three Independents (or minor party members such as Libertarian). And related to that proposal is one floated by Senate Majority Whip Frank Antenori that a super majority vote of the commission be necessary to pass any final map.

Those two revisions alone could go a long way toward avoiding in 2020 the brouhaha we’ve seen this year over redistricting.

Other ideas include reworking the six mapping criteria. Those changes should wait, though, until the courts decide the state’s challenge to the federal Voting Rights Act. If the state is released from the constraints of the Act (which is supposed to protect minority voting rights but has been misapplied in Arizona), adhering to the other tenants of the law becomes much easier and might not require any revision by voters.

The redistricting commission is a good idea and should be preserved. But that doesn’t mean that a few changes can’t make it better.

Republicans would be wise in the coming legislative session to moderate their anger, avoid trying to kill the commission altogether and instead submit these modest proposals to voters for adoption.

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