PHOENIX - Republicans on the Independent Redistricting Commission accused Democrats Monday of "political gerrymandering," trying to create unusually shaped districts in a desperate bid to get more of their own party members elected to the Legislature.
At an often contentious meeting Monday, Democrat Linda McNulty proposed crafting legislative districts in Pinal County with the line between them bisecting both Casa Grande and Eloy. McNulty said the result would be that one of the districts would have enough minorities of voting age to possibly qualify as a "majority minority" district, helping achieve one of the requirements of the federal Voting Rights Act.
But Republican Richard Stertz saw something more sinister.
He said the new lines shift lots of Republicans who had been in one district and move them into the adjacent district, which already had a Republican edge. So those extra Republicans do not help a GOP candidate in a general election.
Stertz said moving the Republicans improves the Democrats' chances of getting one of their own elected in the other district.
Fellow Republican Scott Freeman said Democrat José Herrera was also trying to "pack Republicans" together with his plan to create a heavily Republican district running all the way from Paradise Valley to New River.
Herrera acknowledged that would move Republicans from an adjacent Phoenix district, making it easier for a Democrat to get elected there. But he said the 2000 ballot measure that created the commission to draw political lines requires the panel to look at creating as many competitive districts as possible.
Freeman countered that the Arizona Constitution says competitiveness is important only when it does not impair other goals, like keeping communities of interest together and creating districts as compact as possible.
The ongoing disputes mean the commission will not meet its self-imposed goal of adopting final maps for the state's 30 legislative and nine congressional districts by Christmas. And delays will make it more difficult for both incumbents and challengers to know in which district they live and where to gather nominating signatures and campaign.
Central to the debate is exactly how the districts should reflect the state's voter registration.
The most recent numbers show 35.5 percent of registered voters are Republican, with 30.8 percent Democrats and the balance not with either party. Taking out the independents, Republicans have a 53.5 to 46.5 edge.
But federal law requires states to protect minority voting strength. That means the commission needs to create at least nine districts with sufficient voting-age minorities to be able to elect someone of their own choice.
Stertz said more than 75 percent of Hispanics are registered as Democrats. He said packing them in to those minority districts basically means much what's left will be Republican.
"There's just less Democrats to be spread around," Stertz said. Initial maps envision at least 16 of the 30 districts will be places where Republicans find it easier to win; the Democrat-dominated districts are largely those created to protect minority voting strength.
Herrera bemoaned the fact that would leave only three politically competitive legislative districts for the whole state.
"This is unacceptable," he said.
And McNulty, speaking in favor of the change Herrera wants, said it would be "fabulous to have a truly competitive district in the middle of Phoenix."
Freeman said, though, to do that the commission would have to break up what he said is a community composed of Paradise Valley and the Arcadia section of east Phoenix.
That, he said, amounts to "political gerrymandering where you stuff Republicans into certain districts so you can give a party that has a big registration disadvantage in the county an artificial leg up."