Just Thinking

Redistricting’s Long-Reaching Effects

by Richard Gilman

The remapping of congressional and legislative districts now under way will be the seminal event in shaping Arizona politics for the next 10 years.

Yes, “shape” pertains to the district boundaries the Independent Redistricting Commission will unveil in a matter of days.  That part goes without saying.

But “shape” also refers in a broader sense to the impact those boundaries will have on the overall order of things.  They will determine the nature of the state’s congressional delegation, provide the mandates its members take to Washington, and thereby color the state’s contribution to the national dialogue.

To suggest that mere boundaries have so much significance may seem preposterous.  But, if the last 10 years are prologue, they do.

The mapping exercise is not just zig-zagging lines across the landscape.  It is a calculation of how many of these folks and those folks should be put into each district.  And, while some may disagree, nothing is more important than the split between Republicans and Democrats.

The evidence shows that the proportions are predictive of election margins, as one might expect.  Beyond that, however, they have a telling effect on how the selected representatives will vote once they get to Washington.

Dist.
#
GOP share
of registration
2002
GOP share
of vote
2008
Ratings as
conservatives
2010
       
6 66.1% 64.4% 83.2
2 61.2% 61.5% 95.0
3 62.2% 56.2% 90.7
       
5 62.6% 45.0% 55.7
8 53.7% 43.9% 53.2
1 43.0% 41.4% 50.8
       
7 33.3% 34.1% 21.2
4 32.7% 22.8% 29.5

Arizona’s congressional districts separate into three distinct patterns:

  • Three districts were created with Republican registration advantages above 60 per cent.   (The figures referred to here are “two-way percentages” that factor in just registered Republicans and Democrats, but not unaffiliated voters.)    Predictably they proved to be GOP strongholds.

These bastions of the right produced the most conservative voices in the state – and the nation. Trent Franks, who represents District 2 stretching from the northwest side of metropolitan Phoenix all the way up to the northwest corner of the state, has tied for four straight years as the most conservative member of the House, in the ranking of voting records done annually by the National Journal.

  • Two districts created at the other end of the spectrum to protect the voting rights of Hispanics were – with Republican voters a minority of below 33 percent– predictably Democratic strongholds.

Their representatives – Raul Grijalva and Ed Pastor – took a liberal agenda to Washington, though far from the extreme.  Grijalva with a rating of 78.8 (the rating system works so that the conservative score plus the liberal score equals 100) ranked 87th on the liberal axis, and Pastor’s 70.5 ranked 143rd.

  • Three districts landed somewhere in between.  Of those, only District 8 – covering the east side of Tucson and all of southeastern Arizona – came close to the classic competitive standard of the two parties being close to parity.  Even there, the gap at the start of the decade favored Republicans by 7.4 percentage points.

The other middling districts were 1 and 5.  District 1, which wraps from the northeast corner south into Pinal County, was set up with a Democratic tilt but, as the decade went by, edged up toward parity.  District 5, which covers Ahwatukee, Temple and a major portion of Scottsdale, should have been a GOP stronghold but its Republican registration advantage dropped below the 60 percent line (to 57.9) by the end of the decade.

Neither party was able to consistently hold the three seats.  District 8 went from Republican Jim Kolbe to Democrat Gabrielle Giffords.  Republicans controlled District 1, many of whose Democrats are of a more conservative persuasion, although Ann Kirkpatrick scored a one-term breakthrough in 2008.  The longtime former mayor of Tempe, Democrat Harry Mitchell, served two terms in otherwise Republican District 5.

With divided constituencies back home, none of the three Democrats ventured far from the middle.  Rather than voting strictly by ideology, they had to weigh the differences.  All ended up trying to bridge the gap between the extremes.

The National Journal ratings would give a score of 50.0 – 50.0 to someone who over a series of roll calls voted half the time with the conservatives and half the time with the liberals.  (The most recent ratings, which were compiled for the session preceding last fall’s election, apply to those elected in 2008.  That’s why the election results shown above are for 2008.)

The rating of Democrat Kirkpatrick came about as close as one could come to the exact midpoint with a score of 50.8 conservative and 49.2 liberal in 2010.  Democrat Mitchell was rated 55.7 conservative and 44.3 liberal.  Both were turned out of office last fall for their trouble.  Democrat Giffords came in at 53.2 conservative and 46.8 liberal.  The year before she was rated 47.8 conservative and 52.2 liberal.  Even though she hovered right around the middle, or perhaps because of  it, she was barely able to overcome a tough re-election challenge.

These competitive districts are not an easy place to be a politician.

That unpleasantness aside, the Independent Redistricting Commission will choose how many of each these three scenarios we get for the next 10 years. It doesn’t have unfettered latitude in what it does.  The commission must meet a variety of standards, including the federal law that protects the voting rights of minorities.  What’s more, the number of voters registered to each party and where they live are givens.

Nonetheless, how the commission divvies up those voters matters – big-time.  Pick your preference.  The more districts it has to draw with concentrations of 60 percent or more Republicans or Democrats, the more votes will be cast in Washington along party lines.  The more districts it draws that are somewhere between those extremes, the more moderation we will have.

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