Just Thinking

Competitiveness Hinges on Two Critical Variables

by Richard Gilman

Veteran Democratic legislator Richard Miranda doesn’t look the part of a troublemaker. Yet one of his recommendations represents much more of a problem for the Independent Redistricting Commission than the summer-long barrage from its conservative critics.

Miranda, a leader of the Arizona Minority Coalition for Fair Redistricting, is lobbying that Hispanics should constitute two-thirds of the voting-age population in the legislative districts where the rights of minorities are specially protected by federal law.

That’s good for Hispanics and, in one district in northern Arizona, for Navajos and Hopis. It’s also good for Republicans, who benefit if likely Democratic voters get packed together in a few districts. It’s bad for other purposes.

Agree or disagree, Miranda’s contention goes to the heart of the commission’s task. Today it embarks on a two-week flurry of meetings in a push to draft new congressional and legislative maps by early October. One of the six requirements it must meet is to protect the interests of minorities under the terms of the U.S. Voting Rights Act. Trouble is, the standard of protection is squishy. And every move taken to bolster the interests of Hispanics undermines the commission’s ability to make other districts competitive.

The conflict highlights the hard choices before the IRC. It will have to solve for two critical variables:

How many is too many?  How packed with a protected minority must these so-called “majority-minority” districts be to assure they can elect candidates of their choice? The rather staggering 66 percent suggested by Miranda? 55 percent? 50 percent, or even less?

The commission is darned if it goes low, and darned if it goes high.

Adjust too low, and the state runs afoul of the Justice Department, which must “pre-clear” Arizona’s redistricting plan. That’s exactly what happened 10 years ago, when it ordered the last IRC to bolster Hispanic representation in three of the eight districts in which minority interests were protected.

The feds reached that conclusion after weighing a variety of factors, such as varying levels of turnout, in projecting whether the minority vote could be “effective” in electing candidates of their choice.

That didn’t necessarily mean, by the way, that the minority had to be the majority. The Justice Department approved districts where minorities’ portion of the voting age population ranged from 62 percent all of the way down to 31 percent.

In the end, those apportionments proved only partially effective in getting candidates who reflected the makeup of their districts elected to office. Since the boundaries were settled, only 50 of the 96 legislative victors in the eight “minority” districts were Native American or, although this is an imperfect guide, had Hispanic surnames.  A district-by-district look.

Hispanic candidates swept the races only in Miranda’s District 13 on the west side of Phoenix. In the other seven districts, the minorities either selected candidates of a different ethnicity out of their own choice or perhaps, as the sands shifted in a few districts over the course of the decade, did not have sufficient strength to get the outcome they wanted.

But adjust too high, and the commission penalizes competitiveness. No one knows the trade-off better than the coalition Miranda represents. Nine years ago, its predecessor filed a lawsuit, which went all the way to the Arizona Supreme Court, claiming the first IRC had overdone Hispanic representation at the expense of creating more competitive districts. Unfortunately, the coalition seems to have had a change of heart. 

The fact is, the eight designated districts gobbled up more than 30 percent of the state’s Democrats while consuming just 13 percent of Republicans. That gave Democrats a clear lead in those districts, and left them little juice for much else. The last IRC had 825,000 Republicans and 575,000 Democrats, plus unaffiliated voters, to somehow divvy up among the 22 remaining districts.

If the new commission is serious about creating competitive districts where possible, it has no choice but to employ the same basic technique used to protect minorities, but in reverse, by drawing off large numbers of Republican voters into a set of districts they heavily dominate.

This is the second major variable:

How much is enough?  What are the fair and proper proportions for these “majority-majority” districts? 50 percent Republican? 55 percent? Miranda-esque in scale?

This question should vex the IRC, and the public, like no other. The commission can only go as far as the other five requirements and its stomachs will allow. But to create any semblance of competition, no small measures will do.

Versions of this column appeared in The Arizona Daily Star on Sept. 18 and the Arizona Republic on Sept. 22.

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