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Rural Arizona Seeking Autonomy in Redistricting

The political landscape of Northern Arizona could change drastically as soon as November of this year, when the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC) announces its final plans for the redrawing of both Arizona’s legislative districts and U.S. Congressional district boundaries. And to meet the requirements of the Arizona constitution, the city of Flagstaff may have to be divided.

Tasked with redrawing intrastate political boundaries following the release of census results, the IRC is comprised of two Republican, two Democrat and one Independent delegate(s). This year’s representatives are all from either Maricopa or Pima County.

According to the Arizona constitution’s amendment regarding redistricting, districts must comply with the United States Constitution and the United States Voting Rights Act. They also need to have nearly equal population, should be compact and contiguous, respect the boundaries of cities and counties, have communities with common interests and, finally, be politically competitive.
Tom Chabin, a Flagstaff resident and the current state legislative representative for the District Two containing Flagstaff and the Navajo Nation, said the IRC will be looking to make changes to the area he represents.

“There are 30 legislators in the state,” Chabin said. “And, right now, our legislative district – [including] Flagstaff, the Navajo Nation, the Hopi tribe, the Havasupai tribe – is, again, a vast district. We’re the largest in the state. We’re about 30,000 or 40,000 shy of where we need to be [in terms of population]. You need to be at about 210,000 or 240,000 to constitute a district. The question becomes, where do we gather that 40,000? And how does the IRC draw a map that fits the principle outlined before?”

Facing the IRC are essentially two options, Chabin said: combine a part of Flagstaff with the Navajo Nation, or create a district that reaches from the north of the state to the central-eastern portion.

“There’s two ways to be going,” Chabin said. “One is to split Flagstaff and take it and portions of Coconino County into the Navajo Nation district to capture Native American, off-reservation residents. And go down to White Mountain Apache nation on the eastern border. Or, to let Flagstaff and the communities bordering the Navajo Nation go, and to capture the San Carlos, White Mountain Apache, Apache County and at least a majority of Navajo County.”

The potential political division of Flagstaff has become the subject of discussion for the Flagstaff City Council, who — in their season’s last meeting in July— agreed to send a preliminary value statement from Flagstaff to the IRC.

Councilmember Art Babbott says he hopes such a message would convey to the IRC that the city values political competitiveness when creating districts.

“In that value statement, I think we should emphasize the implications of competitiveness on the macro-political environment of the state of Arizona… I think that’s really important, for me personally,” Babbot said. “And I think that’s in our interest. This is a really challenging exercise, because you have to look beyond your immediate world to produce an outcome you may not like in order to get to an outcome that’s in all of our best interests.”

During the meeting, the council reviewed several proposals showing potential boundaries for the districts. Councilmember Coral Evans said the third such plan – which had the city of Flagstaff intact, but Doney Park separate – is the only one that will meet the need for the Navajo Nation district to have a minority majority. The 1963 U.S. Voting Rights Act stipulates such a majority must exist in at least two districts.

“When you look at the maps that represent it, really the only one we should be looking at is map three,” Evans said. “If we’re talking about upholding the 1963 Voting Rights Act and what maps really meet all the criteria, it’s map three. We need to look into seeing if we can tweak map three to be more [politically] competitive. It doesn’t matter how good a map we come up with. If it violates that, it’s not going to happen. If the map does not reflect the Voting Rights Act of 1963, the Department of Justice might throw it out.”

Any split in the city, Chabin says, will result in a decline in competitive elections.

“If there are areas of Flagstaff taken into the Navajo Nation district and Flagstaff is split, [political competitiveness will] not [be] possible,” Chabin said. “It will be a Republican-dominated district.”

Chabin said he strongly believes dividing either the city or the county will at least partially disenfranchise the people of Flagstaff.

“We should never diminish our capacity for representation in the legislature,” Chabin said. “And once you divide Coconino County and the city of Flagstaff, we have diminished it. We need a legislator from Flagstaff, from Coconino County and we are about 95,000 of the 213,000. I don’t care if they’re a Democrat, I don’t care if they’re a Republican and I don’t care if they’re an Independent. We need someone from this area to represent our interests and our communities in the legislature. And to choose to dilute that voice, I think, is really short-sighted.”

There are several steps that the IRC must take before deciding upon the final district boundaries. The first is creating a basic, grid-lined map with newly drawn districts that account for the six required goals. Next, the IRC must make their proposal map available during a 30-day public comment period. Finally, the IRC sends its final proposal to the U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ) for review – a measure stipulated by the 1965 Voters Rights Act. If the USDOJ finds that the plans meet its standards for inclusiveness of all voters, the state is clear to implement the new district maps.

As part of its effort to survey the opinions of various towns and cities throughout Arizona, the commission has been traveling throughout the state. A 30-day comment period is underway, before the committee makes its final determination on Oct. 31 and sends the plans to the USDOJ for its approval.

Flagstaff Mayor Sara Presler said representatives from the city planned to be present at the IRC meetings in Bullhead City, Prescott and Flagstaff. FBN


Information is available online at www.azredistricting.org.




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