Underlying Partisan Bickering in Harris: The Role of the Independent Commission in Arizona’s Current Redistricting Battle

By: Will Cooke

Several legislative districts in Arizona are potentially in flux as the Supreme Court prepares to hear oral arguments in Harris v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission. Rooted in the ongoing debate about the permissible degree of population deviation in state districts, the plaintiffs in the case focus their argument on the strong correlation between political ideology and the population of a district. As the graph below demonstrates, eleven of the thirteen Democrat-leaning legislative districts in the state contain total populations below the “ideal district size” (or the size of a district if drawn with perfect uniformity of population).

Arizona Districts

Harris v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, 993 F. Supp. 2d, 1094 (D. Ariz. 2014)

The Court’s decision will likely have significant implications for both the future of districting in Arizona and also potentially the state of election law jurisprudence in a post-Shelby world. At the state level, the case also presents a noteworthy commentary on the efficacy of using non-partisan commissions to draw presumptively more egalitarian state districts. Just recently declared constitutional in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission is the product of a state referendum in 2000 that sought to “end[ ] the practice of gerrymandering and improv[e] voter and candidate participation in elections.” The commission, comprised of two Republicans, two Democrats and an independent chairwoman, states its mission as “to redraw Arizona’s congressional and legislative districts to reflect the results of the most recent census.” Importantly, this commission drew the disputed district maps at the heart of Harris.

Needless to say – the commission is off to a rocky start. Although the commission’s disputed line drawing involved many considerations unrelated to partisanship, including the influence of the previously enforceable preclearance requirements on the state, the district court opinion highlights a history of contentious, partisan bickering. Despite a slew of partisan compromises to select the commissioners and any person exerting even the slightest influence over the map drawing, Gov. Jan Brewer and the Arizona Senate attempted to oust the independent commissioner for a perceived partisan leaning. Evidence of the partisan leanings included a lack of disclosure about the political activity of the independent commissioner’s husband and her vote on the proposed map. As one state representative commented at the time: “Some people who are highly partisan register as independents because they don’t want people to know what party they’re in for personal reasons.”

The attempted oust ultimately proved unsuccessful as the Arizona Supreme Court reinstated the commissioner, but the history of this background fight in the current iteration of “one-person, one-vote” jurisprudence exposes a new layer of redistricting headaches for the state of Arizona. As Gov. Brewer lamented following the decision: “[the] misguided ruling bodes ill for the integrity of redistricting in this state.”The proposed fix to end gerrymandering in the state can only achieve its goal with a truly non-partisan commission. Finding this line is not easy. As the final product of the commission reflects – these districting questions often entail so many factors that are difficult to fully divorce from political partisanship. Maybe residential segregation is to blame. Still, many questions will need to be answered in the state as it potentially approaches a new drawing of its districts.

Can partisan elected officials ever create a truly nonpartisan commission? Will a decision for the plaintiffs in Harris impact public confidence in the legislative maps drawn by the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission?

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