GOP bill to gerrymander Arizona’s biggest county flops for now

GOP bill to gerrymander Arizona’s biggest county flops for now

Arizona's Senate has rejected a GOP effort to carve up the state's largest county in a desperate bid to cling to power, but even though one-quarter of Republican lawmakers voted against it, the plan is not dead. The bill's chief sponsor says he intends to bring it up again next year, and could win more support the next time around.

Earlier this year, GOP lawmakers introduced legislation that would divide Maricopa County, which contains three-fifths of the state's population and most of the Phoenix metro area, into four separate counties. The right-wing hardliners who backed the measure claimed they're motivated by a desire to improve local government, but the proposal would almost certainly dilute the political power of the Phoenix area’s growing Latino and Black populations while advantaging white Republicans. The scheme harkens back to the Jim Crow era, when white supremacists redrew county lines across the South to undermine Black voting power.

While both Arizona at large and Maricopa in particular had long been Republican strongholds, both jurisdictions flipped to Joe Biden in 2020 and began voting Democratic for Senate and governor for the first time in many years. That same year, Republicans narrowly preserved their 4-1 majority on the county's Board of Supervisors despite Biden's win, but GOP county leaders have since strongly resisted Donald Trump's election denial schemes and in doing so enraged their party's MAGA wing. Thanks to this internal Republican split and Maricopa's blue trend, Democrats have a real chance to flip the board in 2024 and take charge of this county of 4.4 million people, which is the nation's fourth largest.

Given the rampant election denialism by the measure's backers—the lead Senate sponsor, Jake Hoffman, was even on Trump’s fraudulent "alternative" Electoral College slate that tried to steal the election from Biden—it's hard not to see this plan as motivated squarely by partisanship, if not race, too.

While the bill's shoddy description of the proposed redraw leaves some ambiguity, an approximate version is shown at the top of this post. The redrawn map would shrink Maricopa County down to roughly 40% of its current population and carve out three new counties from the remainder. However, more than 80% of Maricopa's current Latino and Black populations would remain in the shrunken county, turning it from 53% white to 65% people of color. The three newly created counties, by contrast, would each range from about 60 to 70% white.

Those wide racial disparities would unsurprisingly yield similar partisan gaps as shown on the map below (click here to enlarge). While Biden won Maricopa County 50-48, packing voters of color into the proposed shrunken county would have yielded a 64-35 victory for the president according to data from Dave's Redistricting App. As a result, each of the three new counties would have gone for Trump, with "Hohokam" and "Mogollon" giving him 53-54% and "O'odham" 58%.

Since presidential voting patterns correlate closely with how votes are cast further down the ballot, Republicans would very likely retain local control of the three new counties. Democrats, meanwhile, would be left with a rump county less than two-fifths of its present size, when they might soon govern the entirety of it if the proposal doesn't become law. The GOP plan, in short, is a partisan gerrymander.

While Maricopa is one of the country's largest counties and steadily growing, there are nonetheless good reasons to leave it undivided. The existing borders largely correspond to the boundaries of the city Phoenix and the vast majority of its burgeoning suburbs, making it easier for officials to coordinate on key policies affecting the whole region. (A terrific counterexample is the similarly sized Atlanta metro area, which covers 29 counties—a balkanization directly responsible for the region's brutal traffic congestion.)

If Republicans were sincere in their aims, they could instead propose moving Maricopa's rural areas into their own counties or adjacent existing ones. Instead, their redraw would divide numerous suburbs from each other and even split the city of Phoenix nearly in half between two new counties.

Although Hoffman and other GOP proponents argue that splitting the county makes better sense for allocating water usage and furthers small-government goals, local Republican officials steadfastly dispute that. In data provided to legislators when a similar bill was debated last year, Maricopa estimated that funding the new governments of the three additional counties would cost $155 million annually and require tax increases to fund newly created court systems, jails, and other facilities.

While opponents can celebrate for the moment, given the Republican Party's descent into election denialism nationally and in Arizona in particular, proposals like this one—which discriminate against voters of color and target Democrats—are likely to keep gaining traction on the right. Even though Hoffman and his allies have failed this time, they may succeed in the years to come as Arizona's growing diversity overtakes a once-dominant conservative white majority.

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