Nearly twenty years ago, Arizona voters approved a ballot initiative to create an independent, bipartisan commission to draw their election maps - a venture wholly untied to the legislature that largely rendered gerrymandering a non-issue.
But state Republicans are hard at work to undo that commission, and if they succeed, Arizona will join other states whose maps often are drawn to benefit one party over the other.
They recently advanced a proposed state constitutional amendment out of a state Senate committee that would dramatically reorganize the commission in a way that would render it toothless. If the voters approve this in a November ballot referendum, the commission would effectively be neutralized, giving the GOP-majority legislature the power to pass its own gerrymanders.
How does the Arizona commission work?
This commission has two Republicans and two Democrats, who then pick a fifth unaffiliated tiebreaker. Most importantly, legislators and party officials themselves don't get to nominate who can serve on the commission, making this one of the very few in the country that can truly be deemed independent of legislative dominance.
Arizona Republicans previously attempted to thwart the commission's work when maps began failing to provide them a slight advantage:
This commission produced maps that relatively favored Republicans after the 2000 census, and Republicans let them be. But after the 2010 census, Republicans became apoplectic when Colleen Mathis, the lone independent on the commission, sided with Democrats to approve district maps that didn’t give the GOP any unfair advantage. Republican Gov. Jan Brewer and the GOP-run state Senate then overstepped their authority by firing Mathis, only to see the state Supreme Court promptly rebuke them and reinstate her to the commission.
Taking their case all the way to the Supreme Court, the Republicans were smacked down not once but twice, the second time in 2016.
A new approach was necessary, and if this measure goes through it will be a death blow to both the commission and its important work of drawing fair election maps.
Key changes include:
- Expanding the commission from five to eight members.
- Legislators from each party will choose three members; each of those will then choose one supposedly independent member.
- Because the members may choose anyone they want, there is still the risk of partisan deadlock.
- Legislators would have the authority to draw their own map regardless of what the commission comes up with, though that map would be subject to voter approval.
[B]ecause the commission's independents would be partisans in all but name, both parties would essentially have an equal number of members, giving each party a veto. All Republican legislators would have to do is appoint members who oppose any plan, then when the commission deadlocks and produces no maps, GOP legislators can pass their own gerrymanders and claim the commission failed in its duty.
Voters will be deciding the issue at the ballot box this year.