Erika Neuberg, independent chair for the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission (AIRC), spent 2021 working with two Democrats and two Republicans to create new congressional and legislative maps to reflect data from the 2020 U.S. Census.
Arizona’s Constitution requires the AIRC to draw new maps from scratch every decade that incorporate factors such as district shape, geographical features, respect for communities of interest and potential competitiveness, among others.
November’s election was the first test of the maps’ fairness in representing Arizonans, and Neuberg believes they passed.
“It is my sincere belief and expectation that over the 10-year period, our state will look back and see that the maps were fair and served us well,” she told Jewish News.
November’s election results showed, at least, that the process delivered on more competitive races — five of 30 legislative districts are now very competitive, whereas in the last decade only two or three were. The state now has its “most politically diverse legislative districts in more than 10 years, which beginning in January will give more Arizonans a voice in state government and require Republican lawmakers to work together with Democrats like they haven’t had to do since Janet Napolitano was governor in the mid-2000s,” according to the Arizona Republic.
Redistricting is a big part of this result.
After the maps were approved 5-0 a year ago, Arizona Democrats objected strongly that the congressional map gave Republicans an unfair advantage, but Neuberg countered that districts 1 and 6 were more competitive than Democrats realized and “will remain up for grabs for the decade.”
One Arizona Republic columnist even accused Neuberg and her Republican counterparts of moving a boundary to keep state Sen. Wendy Rogers’ seat safe.
Neuberg swatted away the suggestion of malfeasance. She took her responsibility to the state seriously, which meant redistricting for people whether she agreed with their choice of leaders or not, she said.
“I understand the Democrats mistrusted the system because they saw the Republicans had more sway on the commission. But at the end of the day, they were wrong. It wasn’t rigged, and I gave assurances to no one,” she said.
Neuberg came to the process with a desire to foster consensus and listen to the public, and she won her position on the commission with unanimous support.
At the end of the day, the process was successful, she said.
“It wasn’t perfect, but it was actually surprisingly less extreme and more collegial than I imagined it could ever be,” said Neuberg.
The public hearings had a virtual component so that everyone in the state could join and offer their two cents. Neuberg said she was shocked to find the chat feature was enabled, considering the large number of people who logged on. However, she said, nobody abused it and the chat turned out to be “an incredible exchange of positive ideas.”
A political science major in college, Neuberg is a student of history and recognizes that for democracy to thrive, voters need to feel secure that their voices will be heard. To that end, the year-long redistricting process was nothing if not transparent.
“Not a single line was drawn that wasn’t done in front of the camera,” she said.
Anyone could submit maps and the AIRC provided tools on its website to engage as many people as possible. Some people who wanted to participate were overwhelmed with the technology involved and resorted to submitting hand-drawn maps. Those, too, were considered by the commission.
Neuberg described the whole process of drawing the maps as an intellectual one but also as “slightly artistic.” She viewed AIRC’s work as weaving many pieces of data into a narrative, one she believes will show that both Democrats and Republicans have reason to be optimistic and concerned, “with true centrists/independents coming out the winners.”
Now that her job is done, she is curious to see the after-action report that will incorporate her feedback along with that of the other commissioners and she hopes she can assist the future commission when it begins its work in 2031. The entire process gave her a deeper understanding of Arizona and made her more committed to the state, she said.
During the course of her work on the commission, Neuberg avoided social media and reporting on the process. She never felt threatened but admitted there were difficult moments. Still, it was a positive experience that gave her a sense of optimism after many years of feeling concerned about the tone and tenor of public discourse.
As for her detractors, she has a challenge: “Just watch me over the decade if you think I’m aligned with one side — I’m the same person I was before.” JN