Elections are always important, but one of the reasons we worked so hard to drive our members to the polls in 2020 was the Independent Redistricting Commission or IRC. The IRC is the bipartisan group of individuals appointed every ten years to draw new legislative and congressional district maps for the state. Made up of two Republicans, two Democrats, and one Independent chairperson, this group attempts to uphold the “one person, one vote” mission by drawing political districts that contain roughly the same number of people per district.
Arizona’s process for drawing these maps is unique. It was voter-created in 2000 to try and limit the influence of the Legislature (and other political forces) in redrawing the State’s political boundaries. But to make sure that the elected Legislature still has some say, the four partisan members of the commission are appointed by legislative leadership – namely, the President of the Senate, the Speaker of the House, and minority leaders in both chambers. The fifth member, who also serves as the chair, must be independent of any political party (i.e., not registered with any party).
By late January, all five commissioners had been selected to serve. And in mid-March, Brian Schmitt, who was the chief of staff for a Phoenix City Councilman, was selected as the commission’s executive director from a field of more than 40 candidates who had applied for the position. And just yesterday, May 4, the IRC hired its mapping consultants who will actually be responsible for drawing the lines for commissioners to approve.
So, with a staffed commission, how much progress have we made so far in the process of drawing the next decade’s maps? Not much.
Spring Census Surprise
The reason this group meets every 10 years is that the U.S. Census also takes place every ten years. New maps are based on updated census data showing how many people live in our state and where they are located. And in late April, when the Census’ aggregate state data was released, the state was shocked at the results. Despite being considered a near certainty based on preliminary data and predictions, Arizona did not gain a tenth Congressional seat in Washington, D.C. So now, any thoughts that folks had about what our state map would look like with ten districts have been thrown out the window.
Moreover, this aggregate data isn’t actually enough to start drawing the maps. We need to know not just how many people are in the state, but exactly where those people live. And unfortunately, that Census data is still not available. The COVID-19 pandemic caused the U.S. Census Bureau to suspend normal operations for a significant period, so already, the data was delayed. Then-President Trump also issued a directive regarding whether citizenship could be included as a question on the census, as well as a directive regarding whether people who were non-citizens could be counted in the census – a directive which was later rescinded by current President Biden, which has caused the need for additional time to fix data irregularities. So with all of that, the numbers that should have been available in early 2021 are now delayed until late September.
In addition to leaving us all in suspense as to where our new lines will be drawn, this delay has also thrown a curveball at the next class of hopefully elected officials – how can you start collecting signatures to get your name on the ballot if you don’t even know what district you live in? To try and alleviate that problem, Senator JD Mesnard sponsored a bill that allows candidates to start gathering signatures based on current district boundaries, irrespective of how the maps might change. The measure had broad bipartisan support and was signed by the Governor in late March.
The Conversation Continues
While the process continues to be drawn out longer than any of us would like, the decisions the IRC makes will set the foundation for Arizona politics for the next decade. It’s critical that we pay attention to the progress made by the IRC. We’ll continue to communicate important updates through our blog, but if you’re interested in watching yourself, the IRC meets each Tuesday morning. You can catch the Livestream at https://irc.az.gov/node/10.