By Dr. Rodolfo Espino III, who applied this year to be a member of the IRC.

Arizona’s Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC) is being formed right now. It is now more pertinent than ever for Arizona’s citizens to pay attention to how the process for selection is taking place. It is important for citizens to know that the new IRC will carry forward the will of Arizona’s people when it passed Proposition 105. What makes the creation of the IRC this year even more significant is that there is no outside check on the work of the IRC since Arizona is no longer required to submit political maps to the federal government to ensure that the rights of voters are not violated. Democracy in the United States works when an effective system of checks and balances is in place. We voters in Arizona must ask whether there is a proper system of checks in place for the IRC so that its work truly remains independent.

Advertisement

I applied to serve voluntarily on Arizona’s Independent Redistricting Commission –in a sincere desire to serve in a capacity where I could help the state of Arizona produce political boundaries that would de-escalate rather than instigate conflict. More importantly, I applied to ensure the IRC would equally represent the interests of Arizona’s residents.

We must ask two fundamental questions. Are we a state that can embrace the right to organize and mobilize freely? At the end of the day, can we also be a state that eschews unnecessary partisan rancor in order to place our common interests ahead of our partisan allegiances?

As a student and scholar of politics, I have often found myself in situations where I would have to seek resolution and compromise between two conflicting parties. Seeking a fair resolution would often require a “rethinking” of the rules or norms in place that led to conflict.

I will unequivocally state that right now we are in a state of unmitigated conflict in our classroom of democracy. And we do not have to look much further than right here in Arizona. And I will specifically direct our attention to commissions or committees that are selected or appointed to serve the interests of the citizens of Arizona. I come to this conclusion after recently applying to serve on Arizona’s Independent Redistricting Commission.

Arizona’s Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC) was created in 2000 with the passage of Proposition 105. The intent of Proposition 105 was to take the power of redistricting away from the partisan state legislature and place decision making power in the hands of a five-member commission. This commission is open to any citizen of Arizona who meets some basic qualifications, such as being a registered Arizona voter and who:

has been continuously registered with the same political party or registered as unaffiliated with a political party for three or more years immediately preceding appointment, who is committed to applying the provisions of this section in an honest, independent and impartial fashion and to upholding public confidence in the integrity of the redistricting process. Within the three years previous to an appointment, members shall not have been appointed to, elected to, or a candidate for any other public office, including precinct committeeman or committeewoman but not including school board member or officer, and shall not have served as an officer of a political party, or served as a registered paid lobbyist or as an officer of a candidate’s campaign committee.”

Further, in the spirit of ensuring fair political independence and geographic representation:

“no more than two members of the independent redistricting commission shall be members of the same political party. Of the first four members appointed, no more than two shall reside in the same county.”

These all seem like basic qualifications that most registered Arizona voters should be able to meet. But what we want to examine is the process by which registered voters who apply are selected and eventually appointed. The process by which citizens are elected to serve on the Independent Redistricting Commission is controlled by Arizona’s Commission on Appellate Court Appointments (CACA). 

How the CACA created and works is a bit more complicated than how the IRC works. My experience in applying for the IRC left me with a lot of confusion and questions as to how the CACA actually works.

The CACA’s 16 members serve staggered four-year terms.  The chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court serves as chairperson. 5 members of the CACA are attorneys and the other 10 members must be non-attorneys. Any citizen meeting basic qualifications can apply to be on the CACA through the governor’s office, which reviews the applications and then makes appointments. Like the IRC service on the CACA is an unpaid volunteer position. And also like the IRC, the Arizona constitution strives for partisan and geographic balance by requiring that:

“the commission cannot have more than five public members of the same political party, two public members from the same county, three attorneys from the same political party or two attorneys from the same county.”

Presently of the public members of the CACA, 5 Republicans, 3 Independents, and 2 Democrats represent 7 counties. Of the attorney members of the CACA, 3 Republicans, 1 Independent, and 1 Democrat represent 4 counties. In other words, a single political party comprises half of the CACA. Regardless, I assumed that the governor of Arizona would appoint people to CACA who would best represent the interests of Arizona voters when it came time to creating the IRC in order to reflect the spirit of political independence intended with the passage of Proposition 105.  I fear I was mistaken.

Of the 138 registered voters who applied, 51 were extended invitations to interview – 20 Democrats, 20 Republicans, and 11 Independents. I was one of those 20 Democrats invited for an in-person interview and later changed to an online interview via Zoom. The interviews of the independents took place on October 8. The next day, I read a news article that the CACA had already selected 5 independents for consideration to the IRC. According to the Arizona Capitol Times:

Nicole Cullen, a Gilbert teacher; Thomas Loquvam, an EPCOR attorney who used to work for Pinnacle West; Erika Neuberg, a former psychologist who has contributed to several campaigns of both Republicans and Democrats; Gregory Teesdale, a businessman in the tech industry; and Robert Wilson, a gun store owner who held a rally for President Donald Trump in his parking lot in August.

First, I was struck by how quickly the CACA made their decision. Second, reading the list of all the independents that applied and then reading that the final five chosen was enough to tell me that the spirit of true independence might be in danger. I felt there was little chance of true independents being selected to serve on the IRC.

Regrettably, I received unofficial news a couple hours after my interview that I was not one of the candidates selected to move on for selection before the state legislature (I received the unofficial news via a tweet by a local reporter, Jeremy Duda; I still have yet to be officially notified). I was not so much troubled by my own review by the CACA. I was more troubled that an individual who holds a rally for President Trump the day after submitting an application, as an independent, would be viewed by CACA as a true independent. 

I do not personally know any of the remaining candidates for the IRC; nor am I opposed to any of their political beliefs. I wish them all the best moving forward.

I do hope, however, that in the final stages of the selection process of the IRC, the partisan leaders of the state legislature will keep in mind the spirit of true political independence of Arizona’s voters and produce a committee that will best represent the interest of all Arizonans.

My big hope is that the legislative leaders choose reasonably minded partisans that, in turn, can choose a reasonably minded independent candidate that will place individual partisan allegiances aside and consider the broader interest of all Arizona’s residents when it comes time to draw political boundaries that will shape Arizona’s future for the decades to come.

I take comfort in the fact that I put my best foot forward. But I have misgivings about what potentially lies ahead in the remaining process for the selection process for the IRC; and the partisan court battles that will inevitably ensue. I want to re-emphasize that I am not opposed to political parties – we each have a right to freely organize and assemble. Some of our founding fathers wrote that it was in our political DNA to organize into groups or factions. Some political scientists even argue that joining groups is a sign of a healthy democracy. But left unchecked and unguarded, some of our most astute founders warned against this problem. The founders did not explicitly advocate for the elimination of political parties; they simply recognized that parties, left unchecked, can produce mischief.

President Washington in his farewell address stated, 

“The common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.”

And Senator Jeff Flake’s farewell speech to Congress made a similar nod to the problem of unrestrained power:

As I stand here today, I am optimistic about the future, but my optimism is due more to the country that my parents gave to me than it is due to the present condition of our civic life….. I have been thinking a lot recently about the American commitment to democracy — where it comes from, and how, if the circumstances were right, it might slip away.”

I have no regrets in applying for a position on the IRC. In fact, I am grateful for all that I learned. I feel I put forth my best effort in my application and in my interview despite the awkward Zoom format – not knowing who was speaking to me or whom I was addressing. But all the candidates, I assume, were equally vetted and equally treated despite the interview format. And I hope that the final outcome of the IRC selection process produces a commission that recognizes the importance of equality in creating political boundaries. I hope that the IRC values the importance of equality as much as I do.

In fact, the spirit of equality was essentially the premise of my answer to the first question given to me in my interview. What would be one quote that I have found useful in my life? There are a lot that come to mind but the one that came to mind most readily in that context for me was “We all put our pants on one leg at a time.”

That was a message given to me by one of my mentors, Dr. Paul Gardner, at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. His message to me was to let me know the importance of viewing and treating everyone as equal. The ivory tower of academia or any institution should not be viewed as an insurmountable hurdle only open to an exclusive club of people. Everyone I encounter should be viewed as equal and treated as equal. Similarly, the partisan charged atmosphere of the political arena should not be an unlevel playing field upon which important commissions or committees are created. However, the more we allow political forces to go unchecked, the more likely an unequal outcome will result.

I do not want to be a proto-typical academic and problematize a situation without providing a pragmatic solution. I hope that in opening up about my experience in applying for the IRC points the way in which we Arizonans can contemplate ways in which we can further improve on the redistricting process we have in place. 

If we are truly committed to the spirit of independence displayed by voters when they passed Proposition 105 in 2000, then we, the citizens of Arizona, need to take a careful look at the IRC now more than ever. The work that the IRC engages in over the next couple of years will be critical for all concerned citizens of Arizona for the decades to come. First, we may want to consider the ways in which the CACA is created. If we are committed to political independence, then why does so much power over CACA reside in the hands of the governor? Second, we may want to reconsider the ways in which the final selection process of IRC candidates takes place. If the goal is to remove the power of the state legislature over redistricting, why do four partisan leaders of the state legislature make the final selection of the four partisan members? This produces strong implications on how the final independent member is chosen. Third, should we consider expanding the size of the IRC? Five members seem too few to represent the demographic and geographic diversity Arizona has to offer. Finally, while there is a check on the activities of members of the IRC, why does the power of removal from the IRC rest in the hands of a partisan governor and a partisan legislature? 

Again, I remain optimistic but only cautiously so. If my optimism fails me and we have a highly charged partisan redistricting commission as a result, I would strongly urge against any aggrieved parties from utilizing short-term partisan tactics that would undermine long-term political goals. The back and forth tussle over seizing complete control over an institution is short-sighted. Nor should we seek to eliminate the IRC completely. Reform the institution; reform the processes by which people are included or excluded. Take what we have; make it better.

Advertisement