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Arizona's redistricting conundrum: Just what is a community of interest?

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Arizona's redistricting conundrum: Just what is a community of interest?

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Long after he’d finished his work chairing the first Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, Steve Lynn crossed paths with Sandra Day O’Connor, and took the opportunity to ask the retired Supreme Court justice a nagging question he from his time drawing the state’s congressional and legislative districts: How exactly does one define the term “community of interest?”

Respect for communities of interest is one of the six criteria that the Arizona Constitution established for redistricting in this state. It’s an issue that has long been of paramount importance for redistricting. It’s also vague and largely undefined. Even after drawing Arizona’s redistricting maps in 2001, the precise definition of the term eluded Lynn. 

So, he asked O’Connor. He knew she’d written about the issue in a major U.S. Supreme Court opinion, and figured she’d know as well as anyone. But, Lynn said, she explained that she didn’t really know how to define it, either.

Lynn ultimately concluded that communities of interest are defined in much the same way that one of O’Connor’s predecessors on the Supreme Court, Potter Stewart, defined pornography — you know it when you see it.

Broadly speaking, a community of interest is any grouping of people with common needs, concerns or interests. It can be a specific neighborhood or region, a governmental entity like a city or county, a grouping of people who are reliant on a particular industry or employer, or people who rely on the same social services. It could be areas with similar economic or environmental interests. It could be people who use the same infrastructure, such as a transportation corridor. Or it could be border communities that are similarly affected by federal policy on immigration and trade.

“It’s what people tell you it is,” Lynn said. 

Bruce Adelson, a former Justice Department attorney and consultant who specializes in federal civil rights issues and redistricting, has heard people make the same comparison between Stewart’s famous line and the definition of communities of interest. He described them as “areas of affiliation.” That could be people with a common religion or culture. It could revolve around business or athletics. 

Ultimately, it’s in the eye of the beholder, Adelson said, and can be used to describe a lot of things.

“It is an amorphous term. The Supreme Court has never said, nor will they say, exactly what communities of interest must be,” Adelson said.

Douglas Spencer, an associate professor of law at the University of Colorado who specializes in redistricting issues, agreed that the term is vague and amorphous, which he believes is intentional so that communities are able to define themselves. 

“(That) means only those communities who are paying attention and are mobilized and cohesive enough to make the effort to come and make public comment before the commission will be recognized,” Spencer said. 

Furthermore, it’s not defined what it means to “respect” a community of interest. Some people who have testified before the AIRC insist it means keeping their community of interest whole, rather than splitting it between districts. Others insist it means keeping their community in a district with other, like-minded people. And by respecting one community of interest, you may be going against the wishes of another, Lynn said. 

In some cases, people seem to view it as simply respecting the communities’ wishes. In Yuma, for example, many people were resistant to the 2011 commission’s decision to split the county between two legislative districts. Now, many are urging the current AIRC to do it again because they like having lawmakers from multiple districts representing their interests, especially when Democrats and Republicans each get one of the districts. 

Because people who go to the AIRC seeking changes to the map must base their testimony on the six redistricting criteria to some degree, many focus on communities of interest, said Colleen Mathis, who chaired the 2011 commission. And some people end up with pretty flimsy explanations. Mathis said one person who testified to her commission giggled as he explained that his community of interest was not only where he lived and worked, but where his favorite Chinese restaurant was. She suspects he had other, unspoken reasons for the changes he sought.

“It gets defined a whole bunch of different ways,” Mathis said.

Throughout the 30-day public comment period that the Arizona Constitution mandates after the AIRC approves its draft maps, the commissioners have heard myriad explanations from people for what their communities of interest are and how the districts must be arranged to respect them. 

Many of the people who spoke to the commission urged them to respect major, obvious communities of interest, like cities and counties, Native American tribes and other racial or ethnic groups. People used cultural touchstones to define their communities of interest. Residents of Wickenburg Ranch, for example, urged the commission to put them in Prescott’s legislative district rather than one based in the Phoenix area, citing the Western, rural heritage they shared. 

Some speakers described the retirement communities in and around Sun City as their communities of interest. Nearby, others discussed the military community around Luke Air Force Base, and the population of veterans who live in the area, as communities of interest that should be kept together. Oftentimes, people emphasized the school districts they live in, something the AIRC has placed great importance upon as communities of interest. 

Many simply described the communities they lived in and the radius they typically move within as their communities of interest, often defining them based on where they shop, where they go to church and where they socialize. Some in north Scottsdale, for example, objected to being in a legislative district with north Phoenix, noting that they never go west of Desert Ridge to shop or dine. When residents of the Verde Valley debated whether they should be in a district with Flagstaff or Prescott, some focused on which commercial areas they frequent.  

The current iteration of the AIRC has placed a heavy emphasis on communities of interest. The commission conducted a “listening tour” over the summer explicitly for the purpose of gathering information from people across the state about what they believe their communities of interest are. 

Lynn said the current commission is more reliant on communities of interest than its two predecessors. The 2001 AIRC, he said, largely used them to make adjustments or when they needed to split areas, such as when the commissioners had to decide how they wanted to divide Tempe into multiple districts. He said that’s not a criticism, and speculated that the reason the current commission uses it as more of a “jumping off point” than the last two AIRCs is because the delay in receiving the 2020 Census data pushed back its work drawing maps. In lieu of the data needed to do that, the commissioners conducted their listening tour instead.

Speaking to the commission on Thursday, House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Phoenix, suggested that the term “community of interest” has lost its meaning.

“This commission has been applying the definition of ‘community of interest’ so broadly that there seems to be no boundaries as to what a community of interest truly is,” he said. 

Bolding isn’t alone in his belief that the term “community of interest” is being used too loosely by those who are lobbying the commission. During a Nov. 18 hearing in Scottsdale, Pinny Sheoran, the president-elect of the League of Women Voters of Arizona, urged the AIRC to keep in mind that where people shop, worship or socialize has little bearing on their district. The reason for that, she said, is because those things have no policy implications.

“While people who reside in the same community are likely to engage in personal activities together, they are free to cross voting districts for such activities,” Sheoran said. “What does define a community of interest for redistricting purposes are the common needs and problems residents share that can be addressed by government action, things like health care or education facilities, public safety, water shortages, access to broadband and their economic interests, such as mining, agriculture and tourism.”

Lynn agreed with that sentiment. He said the reason communities of interest are part of Arizona’s redistricting laws in the first place is because of policy.

This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.

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