The 2010 census might show huge population shifts in Pima County - but don't expect that to cause substantial changes in the political makeup of the Board of Supervisors' largely noncompetitive districts.
With the new census figures, Pima County, like most governments, is starting to review district lines to make sure they reflect population shifts over the past 10 years and comply with the Voting Rights Act.
A slew of factors have to be considered, including clustering ethnic voters so as to not dilute their political clout and keeping populations equal across districts.
Political competitiveness isn't required, and District 4 Supervisor Ray Carroll, a Republican, said most supervisors are happy to pad their districts to protect themselves in the election.
"I'd love to run in a competitive district, but I'm running in a gerrymandered district," Carroll said.
Supervisors are preparing a new map to submit to the U.S. Department of Justice for approval. Besides protecting minority voting interests, the county must keep districts equal in population to adhere to the "one man, one vote" federal requirement, which requires shifting almost 20,000 people from District 4 to District 5. But that shift isn't expected to swing the makeup of either district.
"By the nature of what you want to accomplish, you want to put communities that have the same interests together," said District 2 Supervisor and board Chairman Ramón Valadez.
Carroll contends officials have used that as an excuse for rampant gerrymandering.
"There's certain rules of the Justice Department about communities of interest. But you can't hide behind those and pack Democrats on the sides," he said.
Carroll pointed to the 2001 redistricting, when, after a fairly lengthy "public process," last-minute maps previously unseen by the public were submitted to the board and approved.
He said Democrats on the board drew the maps to protect District 3 Supervisor Sharon Bronson in the 2004 general election. Bronson has been in office since 1996, longer than any other board member.
"I've managed to stay in office for 14 years," said Carroll, who was appointed in 1997 as District 4 supervisor and has run unopposed since then. He wants districts to be competitive and redistricting to be open, with maps on public display.
But District 5 Supervisor Richard Elías said Carroll is only unhappy because he's always in the minority. "I imagine there's a certain amount of sour grapes in all of that," Elías said.
"Regardless of what the outcome is, you'll have allegations of gerrymandering by people who are unhappy with the result," Valadez said. "It's difficult down here in Pima County. Registrations are skewed toward Democrats. So it's natural that they're more skewed toward the majority for the districts."
Countywide, there are roughly 186,000 Democrats, 151,000 Republicans, and 146,000 independents, so none of those voting blocks has a massive advantage. But with minority-majority populations in Districts 2 and 5, and a political spread that's largely geographic, drawing these districts is more complicated than the numeric breakdown.
Joe Higgins is a small-business owner who is considering running for the Board of Supervisors in the next election, depending on the redistricting results. He was disappointed by the 2001 process and hopes this year is different.
"It was supposed to be a transparent, community-driven political process, and it kind of got hijacked," Higgins said. "I would hope it would be transparent, open, fair. If it's competitive, even better."
Essentially, supervisors like the idea of having competitive districts. But this decade? Not going to happen, they say.
The new map will be similar to the old one, Elias said. "In a way it's bad to disrupt things dramatically. It creates dissension and some fear in the neighborhoods."
Competitiveness is great, theoretically, said Valadez, whose district has roughly 34,000 Democrats, 16,000 Republicans, and 24,000 independents.
"The bottom line is going out and convincing them to hire you on for another four years," Valadez said. Redistricting "can be done quickly with as little pain as possible while maintaining communities of interest."
Kellie Mejdrich is a University of Arizona journalism student apprenticing at the Star. She can be reached at 573-4142 or at firstname.lastname@example.org