Arizona redistricting commissioners exchange accusations, final map certification delayed
Arizona redistricting commissioners spent several hours airing accusations and grievances over the recently concluded mapmaking process but unexpectedly adjourned without certifying the final congressional and legislative districts.
The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission gave its final certification to the state’s new congressional map on Tuesday after making a number of minor changes at the request of several counties. Technical difficulties and the unexplained disappearance of independent Chairwoman Erika Neuberg kept the AIRC from doing the same with the legislative map.
That means the commission won’t be able to transmit the final maps to the Secretary of State’s Office just yet. Vice Chairman Derrick Watchman, who chaired the end of the meeting in Neuberg’s absence, said a follow-up meeting will be scheduled. No date has yet been set.
Until the AIRC transmits the maps to Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, the new districts won’t become official. Once Hobbs receives the maps, Arizona’s 15 counties can begin their work of incorporating the new districts into their voter registration and precinct data.
Technically, the only work left for the commission to do before performing a ministerial duty of certifying the final maps for transmittal to the secretary of state was to make a series of minor changes requested by the counties. Seven counties had a total of 70 requested changes, largely to deal with inconsistencies between precinct boundaries and the new district lines, or to eliminate awkward divisions, such as boundaries that split apartment complexes.
But the disagreements that shook the AIRC in its final days of work last month rose to the surface as the commissioners explained their votes — and pointed fingers at each other.
Democratic Commissioner Shereen Lerner said she regretted her decision to vote for the final congressional map in December, which received a unanimous vote after Lerner demanded changes to make the Tucson-based 6th Congressional District more competitive. Lerner said she believes the map has serious constitutional deficiencies, issues that she raised for the first time at the commission’s Jan. 4 meeting, two weeks after she voted to approve it.
Lerner alleged that the congressional map did not meet the criteria in the Arizona Constitution regarding competitiveness, respect for communities of interest and the use of geographic boundaries. Among Lerner’s issues with the map were “surgical” changes to the Scottsdale and Phoenix-based 1st Congressional District that made it less competitive and more favorable for the GOP, and a refusal by the majority of her colleagues to split Prescott from the 2nd Congressional District in northern Arizona, which kept it as a Republican-friendly, non-competitive district.
“I will say to you that I made an error in voting for that map. And I should not have. I’m going to freely admit I made a mistake, in my mind, on that map. Despite my misgivings I voted for the map,” Lerner said.
GOP Commissioner David Mehl said the congressional map was not a Republican map and that he and fellow Republican Doug York had a different map that they preferred. But they believed the final map, though not ideal, compiled with the constitutional and statutory requirements that bind the commission, and took into consideration the many public comments they’d received.
Mehl questioned Lerner’s about-face on the congressional map, accusing her of changing her position at the request of outside groups.
“We congratulated one another, took pictures with the map,” Mehl said. “To me, personally, it’s devastating that, after clearly being ambushed by interest groups, Commissioner Lerner has come up with talking points that appear to be generated in Washington, D.C., because they have absolutely no realistic connection to what is best for Arizona.”
Lerner denied being beholden to special interests, and said she could make the same accusation about Mehl.
“I can’t say strongly enough how much I resent the insinuation that you made about my personal character in your statement. And all I can say is that I feel that you have done what you are accusing me of. You’ve been operating on behalf of Republican incumbents and Republicans in general,” Lerner said.
Lerner’s accusation referenced two changes Mehl requested that moved incumbent GOP legislators from Democratic districts into Republican ones.
On the final day of mapmaking in December, Mehl requested a last-minute change in the boundary between two legislative districts in Flagstaff that moved Republican Sen. Wendy Rogers from the heavily Democratic and predominantly Native American District 6 into overwhelmingly Republican District 7. Several days earlier, Mehl and York requested that Liberty, a small farming community near Buckeye, move from Democratic District 23 into Republican District 25. GOP Sen. Sine Kerr lives in Liberty.
Lerner claimed on Dec. 22 after the AIRC approved its legislative map that Mehl told her he wanted to make the change for a friend. He wouldn’t talk to reporters after that meeting about whether he knew a lawmaker lived there — the Arizona Constitution bars commissioners from considering where incumbents live — or whether he made the change at someone else’s request.
On Tuesday, Mehl denied Lerner’s accusation, saying the change that benefited Rogers was made to accommodate the Navajo Nation’s request that parts of Flagstaff be moved out of District 6 to increase its Native American population and prevent the city’s white voters from outvoting tribal voters in Democratic primaries. And the change also made “perfect sense” because it moved the district boundary to align with Route 66.
However, the Navajo Nation had already signed off on the proposed district lines prior to Mehl’s proposed change.
Lerner also took a swipe at Neuberg, noting that in all but two or three of the commission’s 3-2 votes, she sided with her Republican colleagues rather than with the Democrats.
Neuberg had plenty of her own complaints against Lerner.
Like Mehl, Neuberg accused Lerner of “moving the goalposts” and changing her view of what constituted a competitive district and deviating from the metrics that the commission unanimously adopted. She asserted that the current commission drew more competitive maps than its Democratic-controlled 2011 predecessor.
And like Mehl, Neuberg questioned Lerner’s change of heart on the congressional map, noting that she seconded the chairwoman’s motion to approve that map when the Republican commissioners balked at doing so.
“Your last-minute about-face regarding the constitutionality of our CD map is highly disingenuous,” Neuberg said. “To suddenly now, after the fact, raise such egregious questions about constitutionality without ever having raised the red flag before is simply not credible.”
Neuberg also echoed Mehl’s accusation that Lerner was taking directions from people outside the commission.
“I am not and have never been beholden to anybody, to anyone, and have never been directed by anyone. I have made my own independent decisions every time. I am not sure, Commissioner Lerner, that you can say the same thing,” she said. “There were six people deliberating with us during those final maps. I sat next to you and watched your phone. Someone was directing you then and someone is directing you now.”
The heated exchanges were interrupted in the early afternoon when Neuberg asked for a 10-minute recess so she could “attend to a few issues.” Before the commission, which had at that point been meeting for five hours, could reconvene, its live feed on YouTube went out. A backup link from the commission’s agenda stated that it was having technical difficulties, and that the meeting would reconvene around 2:20 p.m.
But when the commission reconvened, Neuberg was gone. Watchman said the remainder of the meeting would be rescheduled for an unspecified later date. He didn’t elaborate on why the commission couldn’t continue its meeting, but without Neuberg, the AIRC almost certainly didn’t have the third vote it needed to certify the legislative map. The vote to approve the congressional map was 3-2, with Lerner and Watchman dissenting.
It’s unclear what, if any, effect the delay will have. The counties cannot begin their work of incorporating the new districts into their voter registration and precinct data, a process that Hobbs doesn’t expect to be completed until early April, until the commission transmits the maps to the Secretary of State’s Office.
Murphy Hebert, a spokeswoman for Hobbs, said redistricting is a complicated process and that delays are to be expected.
“Similarly, the implementation of these maps takes a great deal of time and effort, it’s not just a ‘flip-the-switch’ situation. The Secretary of State’s Office and counties will continue to work as quickly as possible to implement the new maps once they are certified,” Hebert told the Arizona Mirror.
This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.