Voting Rights Roundup: GOP plots to destroy Arizona's independent redistricting commission yet again

Leading Off

 Arizona: Republican legislators just won’t give up in their fight gain the ability to engage in partisan gerrymandering by dismantling Arizona’s independent redistricting commission. They recently advanced a proposed state constitutional amendment out of a state Senate committee that would dramatically reorganize the commission in a way that would render it toothless. If the voters approve this in a November ballot referendum, the commission would effectively be neutralized, giving the GOP-majority legislature the power to pass its own gerrymanders. This isn’t the first time that Arizona Republicans have gone to extremes to fight for the ability to gerrymander, which we’ll explain below.​

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​Back in 2000, voters approved a ballot initiative to create the commision itself after legislators gerrymandered decade after decade. This commission has two Republicans and two Democrats, who then pick a fifth unaffiliated tiebreaker. Most importantly, legislators and party officials themselves don’t get to nominate who can serve on the commission, making this one of the very few in the country that can truly be deemed independent of legislative dominance.

Independence from legislative control is critical because even when states create commissions where legislative leaders of both parties select an equal number of partisans, those commissioners are far more likely to engage in bipartisan incumbent-protection gerrymandering, while regular citizens often favor more competitive lines. And furthermore, Arizona’s commission is explicitly tasked with using partisanship in an impartial manner to produce competitive districts without intentionally favoring one party over the other in an undue manner like a partisan gerrymander would. indeed, the current congressional and legislative maps give neither party much of an advantage.

This commission produced maps that relatively favored Republicans after the 2000 census, and Republicans let them be. But after the 2010 census, Republicans became apoplectic when Colleen Mathis, the lone independent on the commission, sided with Democrats to approve district maps that didn’t give the GOP any unfair advantage. Republican Gov. Jan Brewer and the GOP-run state Senate then overstepped their authority by firing Mathis, only to see the state Supreme Court promptly rebuke them and reinstate her to the commission.

Republicans then sued all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to argue that any voter-initiated redistricting reform measure violated the U.S. Constitution, which would have struck a deadly blow to redistricting reform efforts in America. But fortunately, the court upheld the constitutionality of the commission in 2015, paving the way for redistricting reform advocates to attempt ballot initiatives in a large number of states. But Republicans didn’t even give up then. In 2016, they again sued all the way to the Supreme Court to get the maps themselves declared unconstitutional, but the court once again rebuked them.