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Redistricting commission aims for new Arizona election maps by late December

Arizonans will see the final versions of their new legislative and congressional maps shortly before Christmas under a schedule the Independent Redistricting Commission adopted, with the caveat that things could still stretch into January due to a pandemic-induced delay in the census data it needs to draw the new boundaries.

The commission voted on Monday to adopt a schedule that calls for it to approve final maps by Dec. 22, which would meet the New Year's Day deadline that the Secretary of State's Office is hoping for.

Under the AIRC's new schedule, commissioners would adopt a grid map by Sept. 14, and the public would have 23 days to review the initial lines. The grid map, which is the constitutionally mandated starting point for the AIRC, is an essentially arbitrary collection of districts that have equal populations but take no other factors into account and which the commissioners later adjust based on the Arizona Constitution's six redistricting criteria.

The AIRC would complete the first drafts of its maps by Oct. 27, followed by a constitutionally mandated 30-day public comment period. The commissioners would then have about three weeks to make additional changes based on public comments or other input before voting on final maps.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a delay in the release of the census data that states need for redistricting, which is scheduled to be released on Aug. 16. That delay is the reason for what the AIRC's staff and consultants acknowledged is a compressed timeframe for the commission's mapping work.

Some commissioners were skeptical that the schedule would give them enough time to finish their work.

"The schedule at the end seems really compressed. Is it realistic that we can debate these issues in this timeframe?" asked Republican Commissioner David Mehl.

"It is certainly a concern," responded Doug Johnson of National Demographics Corporation, one of the AIRC's mapping consultants. "If things go smoothly, yes, I think this could work. If not, you'd have to push past Dec. 22. The delay with the census data just has everyone jammed up, of course, across the country."

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The census data delay and subsequent schedule leave the AIRC lagging behind its predecessor commissions. The 2001 commission released its grid maps in mid-July and its final maps in October. Its 2011 successor released its grid maps in mid-August and its final maps in December.

Commissioners, consultants and staff were all well aware of the possibility that the current commission could drag on past the New Year.

In some ways, it won't matter to candidates whether the mapmaking process extends into January. The legislature and Gov. Doug Ducey approved a law allowing congressional and legislative candidates to collect the signatures for their nominating petitions in both their old and new districts. Nominating petitions are due on April 4.

But the uncertainty of the final lines could be problematic in other ways. Some candidates may not want to make final decisions on where or whether they run until they see the final district boundaries. And changes to the draft maps could leave candidates unexpectedly facing off against fellow incumbents from their own party — or forced to move into a neighboring district that is more favorable.

Delays could create problems for election officials, as well, though those problems are unlikely to be severe. Murphy Hebert, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, said it will take an estimated four weeks for county election officials to add the information from the new maps into their databases. That information is needed to determine what precincts voters are in and what ballots they should receive.

Any delays to the current schedule could create additional pressure and difficulties for county election officials, Hebert said. However, even if the AIRC doesn't approve its final maps until mid-January, it will likely leave election officials with plenty of time.

"Obviously, the sooner, the better. But we have some time to work with," Hebert said.

Erika Neuberg, the commission's independent chairwoman, described the Dec. 22 deadline as more of an aspirational goal, something that would keep the AIRC on track and focused on its work. But if the commission needs more time at the end, then it can always extend, she said.

Things often take more time than people expect, Neuberg said, and the commission's work could be further delayed by legal challenges or other issues.

"I think we all ought to go into this with eyes open. We cannot compromise the quality of the end product," she said.

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Democratic Commissioner Shereen Lerner shared those concerns, saying she didn't want to feel pressured to finish by a certain date. She proposed that the commission, which has been meeting on a weekly basis, increase the frequency of its meetings once it receives the census data next month.

The commission's consultants presented two possible schedules. The one notable difference between the two was that one had a 23-day public comment period on the draft maps, while the other allowed 30 days for the public to review them.

Johnson suggested that the AIRC adopt the map with the 23-day grid map timeline, which he said would give the commissioners more time in the latter part of the process to work on the final maps.

"Really, when things are really going to matter is at the end. So, the more time you can put at the end, I would recommend doing that," he said. "Save yourself time at the end for when decisions are going to be made."

Monday's meeting was a continuation of an agenda that was begun July 13. The commission only made it partway through its last meeting before a power outage near the Capitol forced the AIRC to reschedule the remainder. The commission will hold its regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday.

This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.


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Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission