PHOENIX — A decision by Arizona voters in 2000 could minimize the effects on this state of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling Thursday on partisan gerrymandering.
But a key Democrat state senator said he worries that taking federal courts out of the review process, coupled with the recent actions of Gov. Doug Ducey and the Republican-controlled Senate to stack a panel that plays a key role in drawing lines, could effectively give license to the governor and his allies to craft maps that cement GOP control of the Legislature and give the GOP an edge in electing members of Congress.
On paper, redistricting in Arizona is not a partisan exercise.
The initiative approved by voters nearly two decades ago wrested control of the process from state lawmakers who had made a practice of drawing legislative and congressional lines in ways to benefit the majority party, replacing it with an Independent Redistricting Commission.
And the constitutional amendment that created the IRC details what factors the panel is required to consider in drawing lines, ranging from protecting communities of interest to creating as many competitive districts as possible.
But here’s the thing: The Democrat and Republican legislative leaders who get to name four of the five commission members to craft new districts after the 2020 Census can choose only from a list created by the separate Commission on Appellate Court Appointments.
There is a prohibition against all 15 members coming from the same party. In his more than five years in office, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, who names people to that appointments panel, has replaced all the Democrats. So that means the choices Democrat lawmakers get to make for the IRC are going to be limited to those nominated by Republicans and independents.
All this is crucial because the history of the IRC has shown that, despite its official independent status, a few tweaks in the lines here or there can tilt the scales for one party or the other. In fact, that’s something that Republicans accused the commission of doing in 2010.
But now, with Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling, any bid to give a partisan edge is no longer a concern of — or can be reviewed — by federal courts.
This takes on added significance with the high court’s other ruling Thursday which rebuffed a bid by the Trump administration to add a citizenship question to the decennial census.
With a high percentage of Hispanics in the rapidly growing state, both citizens and otherwise, that increases the chance that more people will fill out the form. And that, in turn, boosts the chance that Arizona will be allocated a 10th seat in the U.S. House after 2020, another set of lines that the Independent Redistricting Commission has to draw.
It’s the question of who draws all those lines that has sharp political implications.
Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, said that’s why he sought earlier this year to block the Senate from confirming Ducey’s four latest appointments to the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments, a move that left no Democrats on the panel.
Ducey press aide Patrick Ptak pointed out that two of the four picked by the governor are political independents.
But Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, said that Kathryn Townsend, one of the “independent” nominees, had been a Republican precinct committeewoman who made “sizable” political donations to GOP candidates. He called her “a Republican passing off as having no party preference or leanings.”
And Matthew Contorelli, the other independent, is married to the daughter of state Rep. Steve Pierce, R-Prescott. And he has ties to the Ducey administration as a paid lobbyist for the governor’s Commerce Authority.
Ptak had no immediate answer to the question of when Ducey will fill the two slots — or even whether the governor is considering any Democrats at all.
What’s wrong with that, said Quezada, is it ignores a constitutional requirement that “the governor ... shall endeavor to see that the commission reflects the diversity of Arizona’s population.” And out of nearly 3.8 million registered voters, nearly 1.2 million are Democrats.
Ptak said Ducey still has two more appointments he can make. But Quezada said Thursday he is not optimistic, particularly now that the Supreme Court has put federal judges out of the redistricting business.
“I don’t think that gives us any hope that Ducey will put any Democrats on the commission,” Quezada said. And he said with the new high court ruling “that certainly doesn’t motivate him to address that issue.”
Quezada acknowledged that the appellate court commission does need to nominate 10 Republicans, 10 Democrats and five independents for the redistricting commission. It is from that list that elected leaders in the House and Senate each choose one, with those four then selecting a fifth from the list of independents to chair the redistricting panel.
But Quezada said a biased appellate commission will be “finding Democrats that are Democrat in name only” to nominate for the redistricting commission, with Democrat elected officials forced to choose from that list.
In turn, that creates the chance the redistricting commission will create a gerrymandered map designed to help elect more Republicans.
“Then we’re right back where we are right now where the (Supreme) Court is saying even if it is biased, tough luck,” Quezada said.
The membership on the appellate court commission is important not just because of how it affects redistricting. This same panel sifts through applicants for the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, with the governor required to select from those nominated.
Sen. Andrea Dalessandro, D-Green Valley, said during the debate on the confirmation of the four new commissioners that the Republican governor has apparently been setting the stage for an appellate court commission of his liking for years. She said the governor in his five years in office has failed to find a single Democrat whose name he has advanced for the appellate commission.
That, she said, wasn’t the case when Janet Napolitano was governor. Dalessandro said of the 15 nominees the Democratic governor made to the commission, eight were Democrats and seven were Republicans.