Political Manipulation of Redistricting in AZ

Governor Brewer (R-AZ) called a special session of the Senate to remove the chair of the independent redistricting commission. She didn't like the districting map that was produced.

Via the NYTArizona Senate, at Governor’s Urging, Ousts Chief of Redistricting Panel

Following the recommendation of Ms. Brewer, a Republican, the Republican-controlled Senate voted 21 to 6 on Tuesday night to remove Colleen C. Mathis, chairwoman of the Independent Redistricting Commission. Lawyers raced to court in a long-shot effort to overturn the decision.

[…]

Arizona voters decided in 2000 that a citizens’ commission of two Republicans, two Democrats and an independent chairman would draw political lines and that commissioners could be removed by a two-thirds vote of the Senate only for “substantial neglect of duty, gross misconduct in office or inability to discharge the duties of office.”

Ms. Brewer accused Ms. Mathis, who is registered as an independent, of improperly conducting commission business out of public view and of skewing the redistricting process toward Democrats.

[…]

Ms. Brewer had sent Ms. Mathis and the other four commissioners stern letters last week setting the stage for the confrontation. The governor had sought also to remove the two Democrats on the panel but did not have the votes, officials said. Infuriating her and other Republicans was the hiring of a mapping consultant with ties to President Obama’s 2008 campaign.

The Arizona Republic has more details of Brewer’s claims:

Brewer, who was in New York promoting her book, directed Secretary of State Ken Bennett to issue a letter on her behalf outlining the causes for Mathis’ removal. When the governor is out of state, the secretary of state is the acting governor.

The letter cited Mathis’ failure to conduct commission meetings publicly, a reference to the ongoing controversy over whether the commission violated the state Open Meeting Law when it voted in June to hire a mapping consultant with Democratic ties.

The governor also cited a failure to properly adjust the “grid map,” the starting point for drawing new maps, to account for all of the criteria required for new maps, as well as an overreliance on competitiveness as a factor in drawing new boundary lines.

I would also note that the optics of directing this type of action whilst on a book tour aren’t exactly stellar, but so it goes.

The question at the center of all of this is whether the actual motivation for this move is that actual “gross misconduct” was present or whether the real motivation is that the Governor did not like the way her party made out in the redistricting process.  Back to the Republic:

The draft maps particularly agitated Arizona’s GOP congressmen, who don’t like the fact that districts currently seen as “safe” Republican seats would become more competitive, and who feel lines were manipulated to favor incumbent Democrats. They pressured Brewer to also remove the panel’s two Democratic commissioners. However, the Senate could not muster the votes.

The panel also has two Republican commissioners and Mathis, a registered independent.

“There’s no question that members of the congressional delegation were upset,” said Matthew Benson, the governor’s spokesman, calling it “unfortunate” the governor could not sway the Senate to remove more members.

The fact that there was an attempt to remove the Democrats on the commission certainly enhances the suspicion that the motivation for the vote was more partisan than it was about rooting out misconduct.

Meanwhile, the issue is being examined in court and barring their intervention:

The state Commission on Appellate Court Appointments has 30 days to nominate three people who are registered independents as the new chairperson. The four remaining redistricting commissioners then have 14 days to pick one of the three.

If the four can’t reach agreement, the choice falls to the 16-member appellate-court commission.

And then there is the pesky fact that district lines are still at issue:

Meanwhile, the commission can continue its work, which includes wrapping up work this week on a series of statewide hearings on the draft maps. After that, the commission can adjust the maps but without a chairperson to break what might be 2-2 ties, it could be hard to proceed.

If one looks at Governor Brewer’s October 26, 2011 letter to Mathis (the now ousted chair of the committee) the objections are clearly about not liking the map itself and then inferring misconduct.  Further, I find the following passage rather damning in terms of the Governor’s motivations:  ”I believe the IRC also violated the Arizona Constitution by elevating ’competiveness’ above the other goals.’  Specifically, she argues that the use of geographic and existing political boundaries were not adequately applied.   It seems to me that if there are grounds for accusations of “gross misconduct” then, fine.  However, if the argument goes like this:  GOP doesn’t like the map—>it is too competitive!—>there must have been gross misconduct, then perhaps this is problematic logic.

As such, Dave Weigel’s headline on his post on this topic appears, at least at the moment, to be on target: If You Don’t Like the Map, Impeach the Map-Maker.

Really, all of this underscores that one of the most fundamental problems in our politics is that we have a widespread situation wherein the power to draw districts is more significant than the actual process of voting.  It is more important than who the candidates are or what the prevailing issues of the day happen to be.  Every ten years there is a fight to geo-lock certain cadred of partisans within specific lines (not that it always works as intended).  This should be considered more of a problem than it is by the general public.  Of course, the only true remedy is to substantially reform our election system to one that does not rely so heavily on single member districts (either a full-blown proportional representation system or a mixed system such as Mixed Member Proportional system that combines single member districts and localized representation with a national proportional vote to determine the exact partisan mix of the legislature).

Of course, such reform is a bridge too far for the current (and foreseeable) political climate.  Still, I think is it useful to encourage thought on this subject.  At a minimum, the fact that geography can be manipulated to determine (or, at least, substantially influence) electoral outcomes ought to be objectionable to anyone who values democratic competition.

FILED UNDER: US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Andre Kenji says:

    I think that the better solution is to impose independent comissions to do the job. Proportional representation also has it´s problems.

  2. Hey Norm says:

    When you step back and look at the big picture…these redistricting kerfuffles and the widespread voter suppression efforts by Republicans are really rather appalling. It would be in the better interest of the country if they actually had a message they could sell, instead of simply manipulating the electorate in a craven grab for power. The funny thing is that once they are in power they seem to have no interest in, and little apptitude for, actually governing.

  3. Politics involved in redistricting? I’m shocked, and so is Elbridge Gerry 😀

  4. @Andre Kenji: Certainly every system has its problems. The issue becomes minimizing major problems whilst recognizing that nothing is perfect.

    @Doug Mataconis: True, it is a long term problem. Part of it is the utilization of an 18th century voting model. It is also made far worse by the way in which technology makes gerrymandering so much easier.

  5. WR says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Both sides do it! Both sides are equally bad! It’s the system! It’s impossible to change!

    As long as it favors Republicans, that is.

  6. @WR:

    If you’re seriously suggesting that Democrats don’t manipulate the system I’d point you to the State of Illinois.

    In any case, I didn’t say it was okay. I said it was as American as Apple Pie. And, quite honestly, I don’t see how you fix it without putting these decisions in the hands of unelected bureaucrats, which doesn’t sound very democratic to me.

  7. @Doug Mataconis:

    , I don’t see how you fix it without putting these decisions in the hands of unelected bureaucrats, which doesn’t sound very democratic to me.

    Actually, if the results of such a process would be more competitive elections that, therefore, resulted in elected officials being more responsive (by necessity) to their constituents, then such a process sounds a lot more democratic than the system we currently have.

    The fact that certain functions of government are left to unelected bureaucrats is hardly a diminution of democracy as long as the ultimate responsibility for all of government is in the hands of elected officials. We delegate, via elected legislatures, any number of responsibilities to unelected bureaucrats all the time. I see no compelling reason why redistricting is a unique policy action that should only be performed by elected officials (especially given the perverse incentives that elected officials have in this policy area). Indeed, one could argue that it is a policy area that is especially of a type that one would wish to delegate to unelected officials.

  8. Andre Kenji says:

    “Certainly every system has its problems. The issue becomes minimizing major problems whilst recognizing that nothing is perfect.”

    Yes, but proportional vote usually has the problem of creating informal districts where the voters have no control over the representative. Besides that, considering that there are big states like California and New York and considering that proportional representation increases the representation of big urbarn areas you still would need some kind of districting in these states.

    By the way, no offense here, but as a political scientist that wrote about Colombia you should study the Brazilian political system. It would be very instructive. 😉

  9. @Andre Kenji: I am aware of Brazilian politics and, specifically, the problems of fragmentation in the legislature as the result of PR. I am also aware of the the problems of representation in terms of the larger states versus the smaller ones (although I think I interpret some of these differently than you do). Indeed, Brazil is a case in the book I am currently working on, if that makes you feel any better 😉

    I would note that there a lot of different ways to implement PR and that my preference, as noted in the post, is MMP (which is not pure PR), which retains local districts alongside a proportional distribution of seats in the legislature. This ameliorates some of the objections you register.

    In looking at the electoral systems of dozens of countries, I would assert that while all systems have their own pathologies, the worst system may well be single member district, plurality systems (i.e., the US system) if one values things like representativeness and competition.

  10. sam says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    The fact that certain functions of government are left to unelected bureaucrats is hardly a diminution of democracy

    Indeed. In democratic Athens, there were very, very few elections (they didn’t trust elections). The conduct of civic affairs was accomplished by boards and commissions populated by citizens selected by lottery. More unelected folks you’d be hard-pressed to find, and that scheme might have been the purest expression of democracy.

  11. @sam: In honesty, I wouldn’t go to Athens as an example, as despite the terminological similarities, I do not consider Athenian democracy to be a compatible to the modern, representative manifestation.

    I would simply note that policy implementation always requires the delegation of duties to unelected bureaucrats. It is a hallmark of modern governance. It is impossible to have elected officials do everything–and that fact does not diminish the democratic nature of the system.

  12. @Steven L. Taylor:

    What’s to say that the result isn’t just as likely to be a system that aides in the preservation of the status quo from which those bureaucrats benefit? I think you’ll agree that it would be mistaken to trust their motives any more than one trusts the motives of the state legislature.

    Here in Virginia we tried to solve the problem with a bipartisan redistricting panel. The result was a 2011 redistricting of state legislative seats that essentially established boundaries most likely to be beneficial to incumbents, regardless of party. The result is that there are very few contested elections on the ballot next week, and even fewer where the challenger actually has a realistic shot at unseating the challenger or flipping party control. The same is true of the proposed Congressional Map which, while not yet officially approved, includes one district that stretches nearly 450 miles form the North Carolina border north to just outside Leesburg, Virginia.

    Power corrupts no matter if it’s in the hands of legislators or bureaucrats.

  13. @Doug Mataconis:

    I think you’ll agree that it would be mistaken to trust their motives any more than one trusts the motives of the state legislature.

    Actually, no: I wouldn’t agree.

    This is like saying we might as well let drug safety issues be decided by Congress, because a) that would be more democratic, and b) the motives of FDA regulators are identically problematic to those of Congress on such a topic.

    Not all motives are created equal.

    Power corrupts no matter if it’s in the hands of legislators or bureaucrats.

    This strikes me a platitudinous, rather than an argument one way or another.

    The bottom line with all such governing mechanism is the need to balance motives, power, and likely outcomes.

    Any system is imperfect, the question is, therefore, an issue of determining which set of imperfections is desirable.

  14. @Doug Mataconis: To turn the discussion over a tad: what is the positive argument for allowing legislators to draw districts from motives that are clearly partisan in nature? Does this serve basic democratic values?

  15. sam says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    In honesty, I wouldn’t go to Athens as an example, as despite the terminological similarities, I do not consider Athenian democracy to be a compatible to the modern, representative manifestation.

    Nor do I, really. I only brought it up in the context of unelected folks making civic decisions. I am intrigued with the idea of populating commissions by lottery among the citizens. Seems to me that a redistricting commission so constructed might not be a bad thing. I’ve served on five juries, and in each, the members of the jury took their responsibilities quite seriously. I don’t see why the same level of seriousness couldn’t be brought to a redistricting commission composed of randomly chosen citizens. I think fairness (yielding competitiveness) would be paramount in such a commission’s thinking. I might be naive, but I don’t think the political persuasions of the commissioners would influence the outcome under such a system.

  16. Andre Kenji says:

    *”I am also aware of the the problems of representation in terms of the larger states versus the smaller ones (although I think I interpret some of these differently than you do). Indeed, Brazil is a case in the book I am currently working on, if that makes you feel any better ;)”*

    That´s not the biggest problem. I think that the biggest problem is that informal and unofficial district is that you have all the problems of the American System and none of it´s advantages. Besides that, you have the problem of underrepresentation of minorities. There are large stretches of poor suburbs that don´t manage to ellect representatives in any level.

    “I would assert that while all systems have their own pathologies, the worst system may well be single member district, plurality systems (i.e., the US system) if one values things like representativeness and competition. “

    I don´t. Under Proportional Representation the BNP would have seats in the House of Commons in the United Kingdom. The biggest victories of the Front Nationale and the BNP happened in the European Elections, that uses PR.

    But as a Brazilian I´ll always defend the run off. I think that all elections in the US should use Lousiana´s Jungle Primary.

  17. @Andre Kenji: I would argue that the unofficial districts your are referring to have a serious advantage over the ones in the US: they are created purely by voters within a multi-member, PR district.

    BTW: if you you prefer run-offs, then you seem to be agreeing with my that SMD plurality is the worse option 🙂

  18. Rick Almeida says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Actually, if the results of such a process would be more competitive elections that, therefore, resulted in elected officials being more responsive (by necessity) to their constituents, then such a process sounds a lot more democratic than the system we currently have.

    Interestingly, there’s at least some literature in our discipline that suggests that competitve districts increase voter dissatisfaction by maximizing the number of out-partisans, while districts that are gerrymandered for partisan purposes contain more satisfied voters.

  19. @Rick Almeida: I could certainly see that. By definition a competitive district is going to have more disappointed voters in it than a noncompetitive one.

  20. matt b says:

    BTW, NPR had a great piece on this during yesterday’s Morning Edition which provide some additional background — both about how Arizona’s system came into being AND about some further details about things in play (including the fact that the independent member of the panel is married to a democrat):
    http://www.npr.org/2011/11/02/141926264/head-of-ariz-redistricting-commisison-fired

  21. MM says:

    @sam:

    I am intrigued with the idea of populating commissions by lottery among the citizens. Seems to me that a redistricting commission so constructed might not be a bad thing. I’ve served on five juries, and in each, the members of the jury took their responsibilities quite seriously. I don’t see why the same level of seriousness couldn’t be brought to a redistricting commission composed of randomly chosen citizens. I think fairness (yielding competitiveness) would be paramount in such a commission’s thinking. I might be naive, but I don’t think the political persuasions of the commissioners would influence the outcome under such a system.

    Logistically this is many times more difficult than asking people to serve on a jury. Trial of the century of the week notwithstanding, most jury trials last less than a week. Redistricting takes months.

  22. ck says:

    This may not be perfectly on-topic, but since we’re talking about electoral district reform I’ll throw out my half-baked pet idea:

    No districts at all. Have 435 (or however many) at-large seats in Congress. Every voter gets to choose one candidate. The top 435 vote-getters are elected.

    Electoral strategy would proceed like this: a candidate could not focus his campaign on too small a constituency, since that would not produce enough votes to get elected. Nor could he focus on too large a constituency, since getting more votes than needed gains him nothing, but does reduce the votes available for his co-partisans – thus diluting his power in Congress. So parties would naturally divide the country into informal districts, in each of which they’d run one candidate.

    Advantages: No geographic line-drawing needed. No voters would be effectively disenfranchised by being political minorities in the area in which they live.

    Disadvantages: Outcome might have significant statistical noise and therefore not be perfectly reflective of the partisan breakdown of the country (but this is still better than being politically manipulated, as it is now through gerrymandering). Small differences in vote totals near the cutoff point (435th member) could require nationwide recounts (but this might not be the case if parties use informal districts). Voters would have to know the name of their preferred candidate, since ballots could not include every possible candidate nationwide.

  23. MBunge says:

    @ck: “Nor could he focus on too large a constituency, since getting more votes than needed gains him nothing”

    That pretty much overlooks the reality that the candidate who got the most votes would be seen by everyone in the system as being more powerful or in a stronger position than everyone else. Let’s say you need 1 million votes to make it into Congress. The guy who gets 5 million votes is going to have much more practical authority and influence than they guy who squeeks in with 1,000,001.

    Mike

  24. Andre Kenji says:

    “I would argue that the unofficial districts your are referring to have a serious advantage over the ones in the US: they are created purely by voters within a multi-member, PR district. “

    They aren´t created by voters because they are subject to manipulation by the parties. If a party launches a single candidate it´s fair easier to elect a congressman than if a party launches more than one candidate. It´s very difficult to run if you don´t have large amounts of money(That´s why there are so much celebrities, like televisions clowns and a Wayne LaRouche wannabe winning elections to the Congress- they have name recogntion of their own).


    if you you prefer run-offs, then you seem to be agreeing with my that SMD plurality is the worse option 🙂

    I think that there is nothing worse than PR over large geographical areas. The countries in Europe that adopts PR over large areas all have strong far right parties. There is a Party of the Animals in Netherland.

  25. @Andre Kenji:

    I guess I fail to see that the generation of some number of niche/weird parties is, per se, a slam-dunk argument regarding PR.

    You are also ignoring the fact that some of these issues can be addressed via mechanisms like district magnitude, electoral thresholds, the exact type of PR deployed (e.g., highest averages processes via largest remainders, the exact formula/quota deployed, etc.).

    I would note that there is a significant far-right party in France, and it has a run-off SMD system. Electoral rules don’t cause fringe parties, the voters do.

  26. ck says:

    @MBunge: Why is that a bad thing?

  27. matt b says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Following Steven’s point, pretending that there all solutions harbor equal levels of distrust seem rather problematic. Rather than doubting the individuals involved in the project, I think it’s much more helpful/productive to look at how the institution itself is created to see how it’s structure works to contract personal/party bias.

    To that point, I think Arizona’s mode is a great template (one I’d support in New York):
    The commission has 5 members. Members are selected by the following:

    One appointed by the Senate President
    One appointed by the Senate Minority Leader
    One appointed by the House Speaker
    One appointed by the House Minority Leader

    The fifth and final member is an independent, chosen by the first four appointees. The fifth member will also serve as the chair.
    from: http://ballotpedia.org/wiki/index.php/Redistricting_in_Arizona

    Looking to how Arizona’s panel is set up — that the partisan members are all appointed by legislators/party leaders AND that the panel has to internally agree upon the independent chair — suggests what seems like a sage way to forefront and therefore control for partisan concerns.

    BTW… at least according to the last census, Arizona splits roughly 33% R, 33% D, 33% I in terms of voter enrollment. Dems make up only ~30% of the legislature.* While I’m sure that of the 33% of political independents in Arizona, a majority lean conservative/right, the numbers seem to suggest that there is a real need for more “competitive” districts.

    *Senate: 21 Republicans, 9 Democrats
    House of Representatives: 40 Republicans, 20 Democrats
    [source: wikipedia]

  28. de stijl says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    One would assume that a libertarian’s concern about “coercion by the State” would apply to issues beyond property. Apparently not.

  29. “I guess I fail to see that the generation of some number of niche/weird parties is, per se, a slam-dunk argument regarding PR.”

    Simple. Weird/ Niche parties can get small quantities of votes from distant regions. One of the biggest caucuses in the Brazilian Congress is the evangelical caucus because evangelicals in every precinct vote for the candidate that his church supports.

    “You are also ignoring the fact that some of these issues can be addressed via mechanisms like district magnitude, electoral thresholds, the exact type of PR deployed (e.g., highest averages processes via largest remainders, the exact formula/quota deployed, etc.).”

    Not really: in fact, that´s why I´m using Italy and Holland as a example. Specially because any vote for the Parliament is a district vote in some level. In many countries the administrative divisions are so small that in the end they work as Congressional Districts.

    I would note that there is a significant far-right party in France, and it has a run-off SMD system. Electoral rules don’t cause fringe parties, the voters do.

    The only thing that the FN in France manages to do is to go to the run offs of the presidential elections. They also manages to elect people to the Regional Councils(That uses proportional representation) and to the European Parliament. They have no power, nada, in the Senate and in the National Assembly.

    On the other hand, in Italy, Finland and Netherlands the far right participates in coalition governments.

  30. @André Kenji de Sousa: Well, I suppose we could cherry pick examples until the cows comes home. And, indeed, I would maintain you are over-emphasizing the fringe and also not taking into account the unpleasant fact that in some of the countries in question, the nationalist right has a significant presence. Again, this not created by PR.

    At any rate, as noted twice above, my actual preference is MMP.

  31. PJ says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    And, quite honestly, I don’t see how you fix it without putting these decisions in the hands of unelected bureaucrats, which doesn’t sound very democratic to me.

    You can, just let an algorithm do it.It has its drawbacks, but compared to the crap you get today, I bet a lot of people would be willing to live with them (Most likely politicians won’t, which shows that it would improve things…)

  32. “And, indeed, I would maintain you are over-emphasizing the fringe and also not taking into account the unpleasant fact that in some of the countries in question, the nationalist right has a significant presence. Again, this not created by PR.”

    Yes, but my point the PR makes all the difference. The Liberal-Democrats lost that referendum on the Instant Run-off in Britain in part because people were afraid that the BNP would gain space. I think that we agree on this one, anyway.