Independent commission looks beyond politics
The toughest challenge for any democracy is making certain that the rules of voting are fair. How fair? A system that allows voters to toss politicians out of office. Every politician in the world proclaims that’s how it ought to be, and then, often silently, accepts or promotes rules that favor one political point of view. Or, more important, supports rules designed to keep an incumbent in power.
That very idea is like a concrete wall when it comes to increasing voter participation by American Indians, Alaska Natives, or any other disenfranchised constituent group. The more we vote, the more we change things. And we elect people like us, new voices, so that means those in power have a great deal to lose.
So many state legislatures cook the books. Here is how it works: Win an election shortly after the Census and you can rig the election rules for the next decade. Draw district boundaries so they are not competitive. At the beginning of the 20th century there were 357 seats in Congress, many of them multi-district seats. But by 1968 all of Congress had been replaced by districts where the combination of geography and demography limited competition. State legislatures drew maps that created “safe seats.” Or as Ballotpedia puts it: “Incumbency is king and gerrymandering has left only a few handful of districts truly competitive.”
Fair Vote says more than 85 percent of U.S. House seats “are completely safe for the party that holds them, and only 4 percent will be true toss-ups in 2016.” And what would it take to flip the House from Republican leadership? Fair Vote says the Democrats would have to roll up at least a 12 percent margin of victory in the presidential race. (A landslide is one antidote to a rigged system).
So in Massachusets congressional districts favor Democrats who win all 9 of the state’s seats when about 40 percent of the people votes for Republicans. Before 2000 Arizona was not quite the opposite story because Democrats could win in Tucson, but every other district was tilted to favor Republicans.
Arizona voters pick a different route
But the thing is: Voters want fair elections even if politicians don’t. So an Arizona initiative was passed in 2000 to strip politics from the process of redistricting. The new law created a five-member Independent Redistricting Commission to take over the task from the legislature. The mission: “The concept of one-person, one-vote dictates that districts should be roughly equal in population. Other factors to be considered are the federal Voting Rights Act, district shape, geographical features, respect for communities of interest and potential competitiveness. The state Constitution requires the commissioners – two Republicans, two Democrats and an independent chairwoman – to start from scratch rather than redraw existing districts.”
I have written a lot about how Arizona’s 1st Congressional District has the highest percentage of Native Americans in the country. Norm DeWeaver, who does fantastic demographic work as a consultant to tribes and tribal organizations, pointed out “that this did not happen by accident.”
DeWeaver said the Independent Redistricting Commission conducted a public hearing process that included voices from Indian Country, including several meetings on tribal lands.
“The Navajo Human Rights Commission was there and very vocal during that long process,” DeWeaver said. “Staff and consultants were there at every one of the many, many meetings. They made strong efforts to consult every tribe … And they got nearly everything they wanted.”
DeWeaver’s point: “Good things don’t happen for Indian Country without a really strong effort.”
A really strong effort in Utah (and by strong effort, I mean litigation) pressed San Juan County to redraw county commission and school board districts so that Navajos would be the majority in two of the three seats. In February a federal court agreed and ordered new districts. One interesting twist in this case: The Court acted on constitutional grounds rather than the Voting Rights Act citing the Equal Protection clause.
It’s hard to understate the importance of redistricting to the success of Native Americans at the ballot box. In Arizona, Montana, and other states where the tribal vote is effective, there is a match between geography and demographics. Basically a reservation or a community votes together, as a bloc. But not every state does that. Alaska Natives are underrepresented because the district boundaries dilute their vote.
That’s a lot of background, but that brings me back to the news, last week’s Supreme Court’s ruling about Arizona’s redistricting process.
This was the second such case involving Arizona and the focus was on how equal each district must be in terms of population. The plaintiffs argued that the commission packed more people into Republican districts than Democratic ones (by a variation of 4 to 8 percent). The commission did this to specifically group minority voters, including Native Americans.
Indeed one of the districts debated in the case is Arizona Legislative District 7. This district is “underpopulated by 4.25 percent” and one reason for that is the district does not include Flagstaff because of different community interests, not politics. There are three Navajo candidates running to represent District 7 in the Legislature; Jamescita Peshlakai in the Senate and Wenona Benally and Eric Descheenie for the two House seats. (Previous: A Record Year for Candidates?)
Political districts are not just lines on a map, but a reflection of a community, and making certain that every community has a voice. And the opportunity to win.
Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports
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