Election officials from around the state are lining up to oppose a bid by a Republican-backed group to get a court to force new lines to be drawn for this year’s legislative elections.
Maricopa County Elections Director Karen Osborne, who is leading the charge, filed legal papers late Wednesday to intercede in the federal court lawsuit. The county’s position is that a panel of judges being convened to look at the work of the Independent Redistricting Commission should keep their hands off the lines, at least for the time being.
Osborne said the issue has nothing to do with politics.
She said it does not matter to her who runs for the Legislature and where their districts are located. And Osborne said she takes no position on the charge by foes of the work of the commission that the maps are biased against Republicans.
The problem, she said, is timing.
Osborne said her county just finished redrawing its 1,142 voting precincts down to 724 because the prevalence of early voting made the large number of polling places unnecessary. More to the point, that process is cumbersome and needs to be coordinated with legislative district lines.
“The train has left the station,” she said.
Osborne said candidate petitions are due May 30. And the Secretary of State’s Office reports that 15 legislative candidates already have filed the necessary nominating papers.
The lawsuit filed in federal court charges that the five-member commission “systematically overpopulated Republican-plurality districts and underpopulated Democrat-plurality districts.” That would have the effect of creating more districts where Democrats would stand a better chance of electing one of their own.
There likely is not enough time for a court to review the charges, reach a conclusion and have the commission redraw the lines. So the challengers have invoked a procedure which allows a panel of three judges to draw their own lines if they find problems — usually with the help of a special consultant — to deal with the most immediate issues.
That’s what was done a decade ago, with the court approving special lines for the 2002 race and the commission coming up with a new map for 2004 through 2010.
But this lawsuit was filed later than the one in 2002 — and the primary election is two weeks earlier than a decade ago.
Coconino County Recorder Candace Owens said she supports what Osborne is doing, saying any changes now make no sense.
“That would be chaos for everyone,” she said. “People are running, turning in petitions.”
Cochise County Recorder Christine Rhodes was more blunt.
“Don’t screw with anything this year,” she said. “We would prefer the lines that are left the way they are.”
Attorney Michael Liburdi, who is representing the challengers, did not return calls seeking a comment.
But House Speaker Andy Tobin, an outspoken critic of the commission’s work, said the commission’s maps are legally flawed. And he said the federal court should intercede, even if it does cause some problems in conducting the Aug. 28 election, saying he doubts it will cause the magnitude of problems predicted by county election officials.
“I believe that they can make certain tweaks to this process and really solve a lot of what I believe was done wrong without moving a lot of lines a lot of places,” Tobin said.
Anyway, Tobin said if new maps result in chaos this year it will not be the fault of the challengers.
“It was clear the IRC was intentionally delaying the process,” he said, waiting before submitting the proposed maps to the U.S. Department of Justice for the required review to ensure that the plan did not dilute minority voting strength. The lawsuit was filed the day after the state got that approval.
A separate lawsuit, filed in Maricopa County Superior Court, challenges the lines the commission drew for the state’s nine congressional districts. But that lawsuit, filed by separate GOP interests, does not seek to alter the lines for this year’s election, instead asking a judge to order the commission to come up with a different plan for the 2014 race.