PHOENIX -- Arizona voters could get the last word on the political alignment of the state for the balance of the decade.
House Speaker Andy Tobin has crafted his own maps for the state's 30 legislative and nine congressional districts. More to the point, he wants lawmakers to place those maps before voters at a special May 15 election, asking them to approve those -- and scrap the ones drawn by the Independent Redistricting Commission.
If approved, these would be the lines used not only for this year's election but through 2020. And Tobin is proposing a separate ballot measure to revamp the five-member commission into a 12-member body to craft the maps in 2021 -- and every decade beyond that.
Tobin has a political edge in getting the needed votes by the House and Senate to put both issues on the ballot as Republicans control both chambers. And GOP lawmakers as well as Gov. Jan Brewer have made no secret they believe the commission-drawn maps are tilted to favor Democrats.
Senate Republicans, however, have a more radical approach: They want voters to dissolve the Independent Redistricting Commission entirely. That would allow lawmakers themselves to once again draw the state's political lines, the way it was before voters took it away from them in 2000 and created the commission.
Senate Majority Leader Andy Biggs, who is leading the effort, said he believes voters can be convinced they made a mistake, calling commission members "unaccountable' and "unelected.' And he said many residents in communities which have been split by the commission's maps are ready to try something else.
"I believe the public pretty much has had it,' he said.
The GOP senators want to put that action to a public vote at a special election Feb. 28, the same day as the already scheduled Republican presidential primary.
That, however, may not be legally possible because ballots already have been printed for that race.
What voters might do on any of these measures is less clear.
On one hand, Republicans outnumber Democrats in Arizona, giving foes of the commission-drafted maps the political edge if they believe, as Tobin charges, they are biased.
But any effort to short-circuit the process voters approved in 2000 for drawing political lines faces an uphill battle.
House Minority Leader Chad Campbell called the speaker's efforts "the epitome of a self-serving politician trying to draw a map that protects their own interests.'
Tobin admitted his plan is more likely to result in the election of Republicans than the commission plan. But he said it creates more politically competitive districts than the four legislative and three congressional districts in the commission's maps.
And Tobin said it does not create far-flung districts which politically marry far-flung communities with different interests and concerns.
Anyway, he said, it's not like the Republicans get the last word on the issue.
"I'm willing to let the voters tell me, 'No, I don't like this map, I'm voting no,' ' he said.
"But you can't have that conversation with the IRC,' Tobin continued, arguing that despite the numerous public hearings and meetings, the panel's two Democrats, working with Colleen Mathis, came up with the plan they wanted all along to give a political leg up to Democrats despite the fact that they are outnumbered among registered voters by not only Republicans but independents.
That assumes the maps will ever make it to the ballot: Campbell said if the Republican-controlled Legislature approves the election, there will be a lawsuit to keep that from happening.
Central to the whole debate is how Arizona redraws the lines for congressional and legislative districts, something it is legally required to do after every decennial census to ensure that all are roughly the same population.
Prior to 2000 that was done by the Legislature.
That pretty much meant maps drawn by the party in the majority. And it was an open secret that the lines were drawn with an eye toward preserving the seats of incumbent lawmakers from the majority.
That year voters approved creation of the Independent Redistricting Commission. While four of its members are chosen by elected officials -- who have to choose from a list of nominees from a special screening commission -- those four choose a fifth.
Proponents said that takes the politics out of the process.
While the 2001 redistricting had some of its own fits and starts and legal challenges, the 2011 effort, with five different commissioners, has been buffeted throughout with charges of Democratic favoritism. That includes Mathis siding with Democrats to select a mapping consultant with strong ties to the Democratic Party.
The official commission stance is that Republicans got their fair share of districts, with 16 of the 30 legislative districts with GOP majorities and Republicans having the political edge in four of the nine congressional districts.
But Republicans have charged the lines were drawn not only to give Democrats more seats than they deserve but to purposely disadvantage GOP incumbents, especially members of Congress.
Paul Gosar, who was in a politically competitive district centered in Flagstaff, has decided to run instead in a far-flung district stretching from Pinal County all the way through Prescott to Lake Havasu City where there are more Republicans. Tobin said that's because what was his district was crafted to make it easier for Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick, who Gosar defeated two years ago, to regain her seat.
And incumbent Congressman Ben Quayle who had been in a safe district found he was drawn into one that may now have a Democrat edge.
On the legislative side, the commission maps have put incumbents into the same district, meaning someone will be forced out. Tobin charges the Democratic commissioners did that on purpose; they have said that is a lie, pointing out the Arizona Constitution specifically forbids them from considering where incumbents and potential challengers live.
Tobin conceded his maps are more likely to help elect Republicans. But he said that was not because of manipulation to protect incumbents.
"Let the voters decide: Does Tobin's maps look like addresses were used, or does the IRC map?' he said.
Campbell said any election will not be that clear.
"The only thing that happens now is the people with the most money are going to try to game the system,' he said, saying that is why voters approved creation of the commission in the first place.
Tobin acknowledged coming up with new maps on May 15 there could be a practical problem this year: The deadline for candidates to file their nominating papers is May 30.
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