Ouster of AZ Redistricting Chair Discourages Latino Voters

Ouster of AZ Redistricting Chair Discourages Latino Voters

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PHOENIX — Landscaper Manuel Chavez was tilling the soil and pruning trees at his client's yard in Scottsdale, Arizona last week when he learned that Gov. Jan Brewer had called for the impeachment of the top official for the state’s independent redistricting commission.

While he admitted that he hadn't followed all the issues surrounding redistricting, Chavez, 43, said he was more concerned about lawmakers changing something that the people voted for.

"What's the point of voting if politicians can come up with ideas and divert policies to make them the way they want it to be?" said Chavez, who runs his own landscaping and gardening business. "It makes the election process useless -- and frustrating."

Chavez was referring to the state senate’s decision last Tuesday to oust Colleen Mathis, chairwoman of the Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC), who Brewer accused of “gross misconduct in office” while urging fellow GOP lawmakers to impeach her.

Echoing the sentiments of a number of voters across Arizona, Chavez says there are far more important issues that lawmakers should be focusing on. "Look at what's going on with our economy,” he says. “It's going down the tube while our politicians continue to bicker.”

The Grand Canyon State's redistricting process has devolved into chaos following Mathis’ impeachment, which has set off a legal firestorm. Both Mathis and the IRC have filed a lawsuit claiming that the governor violated the terms of her office by putting undue pressure on the state senate to "concur in her decision to remove commissioners from office."

The IRC was established in 2000 after Arizona voters passed Proposition 106, an initiative that amended the state's Constitution by transferring the power to draw congressional and legislative districts away from the state legislature.

In its place, the IRC -- consisting of two Republicans, two Democrats and an independent chairwoman – was tasked with drawing districts based on, among other factors, census results, the federal Voting Rights Act, district shape, community interest, and potential competitiveness.

Brewer described draft versions of the IRC’s new maps adopted last month as "fundamentally flawed" and biased in favor of Democrats.

"This move to kick Mathis out has created a growing sentiment among voters that their political voice is being under-valued," said Luis Avila, president of Somos America, a coalition of immigrants rights groups. "People here are showing less and less interest in the political process — and they feel that their votes don't really matter."

Arizona ranked 43rd in the nation for voter turnout (59.8 percent) in the 2008 presidential election, according to a 2010 report conducted by Arizona Civic Health Index. The number marks a four-percentage point decline from the 2004 election. Similarly, the 2009 Gallup Arizona Poll found that only 10 percent of Arizona voters believe that elected officials represent their interests.

"Losing trust in the democratic process will become problematic, as Arizona may see a much lower voting turnout in the 2012 elections," Avila added, noting that after passage of SB 1070, which became the blueprint for anti-immigrant laws in several other states, Latino voters began “contemplating not participating in the elections.” Mathis' impeachment, he says, “makes the situation worse."

The Supreme Court has yet to decide on Mathis’ impeachment, putting the once-in-a-
decade redistricting process in limbo.

"That’s the million-dollar question, what's going to happen next," said Stuart Robinson, public information officer and spokesman for the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission. "We're hoping to have a decision soon, but we just have to wait and see."

While public hearings on congressional and legislative maps are still being held, Robinson said the court's ruling could determine whether or not the IRC will scrap the
draft maps and start again from scratch.

"No one knows how things will play out," Robinson said. “If the Supreme Court's ruling comes down in favor of Brewer and the state Senate, who knows if anyone would want to take Mathis' job?"

Some in the community, however, are optimistic that Mathis will retain her job.

“I’m confident that the Supreme Court will overturn her impeachment,” said Linda Brown, executive director of Arizona Advocacy Network. “Public opinion is overwhelmingly against the governor’s action. Many say, ‘what part of independence do they not understand?’ People here are extremely outraged.”

Arizona voters, Brown added, are aware that Brewer’s move to impeach Mathis is blatantly political and aimed at “disrupting the independent process that the public instituted.”

For Chavez, the clash over redistricting reflects the larger trend of partisan bickering amid an economic frefall.

“Politicians fight over redistricting maps, trying to secure more Republican or Democratic votes,” he says. “All I want is to be able to provide for my family.”