Drafts of new congressional and legislative maps OK'd; final decisions will shape Arizona politics for decade

The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission on Oct. 28, 2021. From left to right: Shereen Lerner, Derrick Watchman, Erika Neuberg, David Mehl, Douglas York.
Ray Stern
Arizona Republic

The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission adopted drafts of new congressional and legislative district maps Thursday with only a few partisan disputes.

The five-member Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission adopted the maps following a full-day meeting at the Sheraton Crescent Hotel in Phoenix. It's all part of the once-a-decade, voter-mandated redistricting to remake political districts based on the 2020 census data.

The commission's goal is to have final maps for the state by Dec. 22; the secretary of state had asked for a Jan. 2 deadline to ensure enough time to prepare for the 2022 elections.

"I think it's a great compromise map," commission chair Erika Neuberg said. "I feel very proud."

The public will now have 30 days to dwell on these maps and voice their opinions about them, facilitated by a listening tour with meetings around the state. After that, the five commissioners will take several more weeks to adjust the draft maps, incorporating what they've learned about what the public and partisan activists want.

Due to census figures that some view as an undercount for the state, the adopted congressional draft map includes nine districts, the same as when they were last redrawn in 2011.

The nine new districts don't closely resemble those of the old map, however, and may force campaign strategy adjustments for congressmen including Republican Paul Gosar and Democrat Tom O'Halleran, who could end up competing in a new District 2 if the final maps are similar to the drafts.

Statewide input led to drafts

The commission consists of two Republicans (Douglas York and David Mehl), two Democrats (Shereen Lerner and Derrick Watchman) and an independent chair (Neuberg), as mandated by the 2000 voter initiative that created it and took the redistricting decisions out of the hands of the Legislature.

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The commission began its work with public hearings around Arizona to gather input; its website — which contains mapping software accessible to anyone — also allows anyone to submit proposed maps of legislative and congressional districts.

The commission then produced grid maps that adhered only to population requirements as a starting point for production of the draft maps. Over the past few weeks, the panel discussed and created the draft maps.

The draft maps incorporate ideas from many sources, including the AZ Latino Coalition for Fair Redistricting and the Southern Arizona Leadership Council. The coalition is pushing for more Latino representation, which is a priority for Lerner and Watchman, and the desires of bipartisan business council, whose members want more GOP representation in Pima County, were championed by Mehl and York.

Tensions rose Thursday as the panel neared the key step of adopting the draft maps, but never approached the sort of bitter infighting seen in the 2011 redistricting process. Mehl and Lerner squabbled over which draft legislative map should be adopted, arguing over the competitiveness of certain districts in the Tucson and Phoenix areas.

Lerner didn't like Mehl's proposal to adopt a draft map that created a new Legislative District 17 in Pima County that leaned Republican, saying the map "was drawn with an effort to create a district with a partisan advantage, just to be honest."

She proposed a compromise that reduced the GOP's advantage but still fell within the range of competitiveness, which the commission defines as the district's party members balanced to within 7% in key elections since 2016.

Mehl said her stance "was just not reasonable."

Neuberg said she leaned toward the map Mehl liked, but abstained from two rounds of voting on the issue that broke along party lines. Playing the role of mediator, Neuberg said the goal was to come up with a "reasonable map" and they could easily make adjustments after the 30 days of hearings. The commissioners agreed to let the commission mapping team make adjustments to Mehl's preferred map before voting on it. York said he still had concerns about districts in the northeast Valley and would address those areas later.

Following more discussion, the panel adopted a congressional draft map on a 5-0 vote, then also unanimously approved the legislative map after the minor tweaks were made.

'A lot of room for change still'

An analysis by the IRC's mapping team of the nine congressional districts shows four districts that are competitive or highly competitive.

The draft map's congressional districts 1 and 6 were considered "highly competitive," while 4 and 8 were in the competitive range. District 2 fell just outside the range at 7.6. The other four districts were solidly Republican or Democrat.

Lerner, who said after the vote she had "significant concerns" about several areas of the legislative map, told The Arizona Republic after adjournment that the commissioners were still getting along.

"We probably won't all agree in the end, but we're at least showing we can all work together," she said. "I think there's a lot of room for change still, and I think we all know that. The challenge for us after the grid map that gave some balance in there. I think we have some balance. We're not all the way there by any means. So it's going to be very important to hear from the public."

Those interested can view the adopted draft maps on the commission's website.

Reach the reporter at rstern@arizonarepublic.com or 480-276-3237. Follow him on Twitter @raystern.

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