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Redistricting predictions: Rural areas might lose seats

Fri, Oct 30, 2009

AZ Legislature

By Jeremy Duda

The balance of power in Arizona government may shift a little further toward the Phoenix metro area when the state’s legislative and congressional district boundaries are redrawn.

As a result, rural areas might wind up with less representation than they have now.

Determining with any precision where the district lines will be in 2012, when Arizona’s Independent Redistricting Commission will finish redrawing the boundaries, is a nearly impossible task. But population growth and voter registration trends can at least provide some insight on which areas are likely to see the greatest change when the new maps are unveiled.

Arizona’s population jumped from about 5.1 million in 2000 to 6.5 million in 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That growth has largely occurred in Maricopa, Pinal and Pima counties Arizona is expected to gain one, and possibly two, congressional seats in the next redistricting. But the number of legislative districts is set in stone at 30, and each must have roughly an equal number of residents. Those districts that have grown the most, and have gained the most residents in relation to others, are the most likely to see their boundaries radically changed, said Steve Lynn, chairman of the Independent Redistricting Commission that drew today’s district lines.

“Because the population doesn’t increase evenly, the districts that we drew, that we’ve been using, are badly malapportioned,” Lynn said.

The commission starts with a blank map - existing boundaries are not considered - and draws new lines based on six constitutionally mandated criteria. Those criteria are: roughly equal population for each district; compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, which emphasizes minority representation; geographically compact and contiguous districts; communities of interest; respect for geographic boundaries and governmental subdivisions such as cities and counties; and competitiveness.

The census data that will be used to determine precisely where the greatest growth has been has not been compiled yet. But voter registration data from the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office shows which districts have gained the most new voters since 2004, when the legislative and congressional boundaries were finalized. Alan Maguire, of the consulting firm the Maguire Company, said voter registration numbers are an imperfect but useful tool for determining where growth has been the greatest.

Most of the fastest growing legislative districts were in Maricopa County. Each legislative district in Arizona had an average of about 171,000 residents in 2004, and on average, each district gained about 15,000 registered voters since then. But while some individual districts gained only a few thousand new voters, others gained as many as 60,000.

Legislative District 12, in the West Valley, added about 50,000 new voters in the past five years, an increase of about 50 percent. In the East Valley, District 21 added 35,000 new voters and District 22 added about 37,500. District 4, which includes the rapidly growing areas of Surprise and Peoria, increased its voter rolls by about 43,000.

Maguire, who was a staffer in the 1980 and 1990 Arizona redistricting processes, said Maricopa County is likely to gain legislative districts after the next commission draws the new maps. Those districts might be wholly contained within the Phoenix metro area, he said, or they could combine parts of the metro area with more rural areas.

“You could draw pizza pie slices that went out like the rays of a star, starting somewhere in sort of the population center in Maricopa County and going all the way out to the fringes of the state,” Maguire said.
The most significant increase in registered voters during the past five years occurred in District 23, which runs through a large swath of Pinal County and into the southern fringes the Phoenix metro area.

The district jumped from 78,411 registered voters in 2004 to 140,127 in the most recent count by the Secretary of State’s Office, an increase of 61,716. Since the existing lines were finalized, Arizona has gone from about 2.6 million registered voters to 3.1 million. In 2000, the state had 2.1 million registered voters.
Pinal County Recorder Laura Dean-Lytle said her county’s population has increased from about 200,000 to an estimated 350,000 during the past decade. Dean-Lytle said she hopes the next redistricting process will leave Pinal County with more self-contained legislative districts that represent the county specifically, as opposed to the way the county is now splintered into numerous districts with constituencies in other areas.

“Hopefully, when those boundaries change, we won’t have quite so many districts within the county,” she said. “We have a couple of major ones, but then we also have some minor ones that affect our county.”

In Pima County, only one district experienced higher than average growth in its voter rolls. District 30, which includes the southern and eastern parts of the Tucson area, as well as part of Santa Cruz County, added 25,000 registered voters since 2004. Voter registration in District 28, in northeast Tucson, actually dropped by more than 2,500, making it the only legislative district to lose registered voters in the past five years.

Other districts across the state were largely stagnant, adding just a few thousand names or fewer since 2004. District 14 in central Phoenix added just 40 new names to its voter rolls during that period.

Based on those trends, many areas of the state - essentially anything outside Maricopa, Pinal and possibly Pima counties - could see less representation at the Capitol when the new districts go into effect in 2012.

Tony Sissons, who runs the consulting firm Research Advisory Services and participated in the 1990 redistricting process, said voter registration data is an imperfect indicator of population growth.

Additionally, there are other factors in play when the Independent Redistricting Commission redraws the lines, making any strong predictions a “fool’s game,” Sissons said. There are five other criteria to consider, plus the priorities and goals of the commissioners themselves, who won’t be selected until 2011, meaning the possibilities are endless, he said.

“There are trillions of possible maps that can be drawn,” Sissons said. “There are so many factors to keep in mind that it’s almost impossible to draw a meaningful map before you have all the data and the process starts for real.”

Yet it can be helpful in some ways, he said.

“It wouldn’t be completely foolhardy to … kind of see what happens when you adjust the existing districts to accommodate those high- growth and low-growth registrations,” he said. “But then the difficult part is that, county to county, there’s a wide variance in the relationship between total registered voters and total population.”

The speculation, though, already has begun. Some legislative incumbents could take an electoral hit if the new lines put them in the same district as another incumbent, while others could get drawn out of friendly districts that have favorable voter-registration trends.

Sissons said he gets Google alerts on all redistricting-related articles, and the number of those articles popping up on the Web is on the rise. “You can really tell that redistricting is now on people’s minds and that they’re anxious to be looking at what’s going to happen,” he said.

Consultant Chad Willems, of the Summit Group, said redistricting makes it difficult for some prospective candidates to plan ahead at this point in the cycle, with the next Independent Redistricting Commission scheduled to begin work in 2011. Although cautious types may be waiting for an ideal situation to open up, others are looking to take the initiative.

“I think it’s in the back of everyone’s mind politically, but there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of people … doing it this time,” Willems said.

For example, the 1st and 5th Congressional districts already have at least three candidates apiece eying the seat, Willems said. With the knowledge that their legislative or congressional district boundaries could be redrawn to put them in the same district as another incumbent of the same party - constitutionally, the commission is prohibited from considering the residences of incumbents when it draws new lines - some may want to run while they still have an ideal district to run in. Technically, candidates for congress don’t have to live in the district in which they are running, but it’s politically damaging if they don’t.

Many Republicans especially are hoping to take advantage of what is expected to be a strong anti-Democratic climate in the 2010 congressional races, Willems said, when Democrats are widely expected to lose congressional seats.

“The attitude seems to be … 2010 will be a good year for Republicans,” Willems said, “and they’ll go out and seize that opportunity and try to pick up some of these seats, and deal with the redistricting.”

Still, some political careers may be hinging on whether candidates will have a new, friendly and open district to run in. Willems pointed to the 3rd Congressional District, where a handful of Republican hopefuls are eying U.S. Rep. John Shadegg’s seat, but won’t run as long as he is in office. Shadegg announced his impending retirement in 2008, but quickly retracted the statement, forcing several potential candidates to reconsider.

Conventional wisdom has been that Arizona will gain at least one new congressional district, with a second district a strong possibility.

But Sissons said the recession, which pulled the rug out from under Arizona’s massive housing boom, may have cost the state the new residents it needs to get a 10th congressional district.

“I’m less confident that we will get that 10th seat. What the economic crisis has done has made households much less likely to move - it’s basically an economic hunkering down effect that’s sort of caused households and businesses to not make any dramatic moves right now. Interstate migration has really plummeted,” he said.

The Independent Redistricting Commission starts with a blank slate, meaning existing boundaries can’t simply be adjusted. And while some features are likely to remain the same - Sissons doubts the commission will split the Navajo Nation into multiple districts, and the Hopi Tribe likely will insist once again on being in a separate district from the Navajo, with whom they have longstanding land disputes - where the final lines are drawn is anyone’s guess. In the end, it will be determined by census data that hasn’t yet been compiled and five redistricting commissioners who have not yet been nominated.

“All I can really say is if you’re a current elected official wishing to run in the district that is created around you in the future, just keep your eye on like a 10-mile radius around you. I couldn’t offer anything more concrete or definitive than that,” Sissons said.

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Tags: Independent Redistricting Commission, 2010 Cencus, Pinal County, Laura Dean-Lytle

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