Democracy & Government

Why Tuesday’s Competitive Primaries Are a Political Rarity

Arizona and Florida, both states where voters have tried to end gerrymandering, vividly illustrate how hard politicians will work to maintain it.

Why Tuesday's Competitive Primaries Are a Political Rarity

Embattled former Democratic National Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democratic member of Congress from Florida's Gold Coast, is one of the incumbents facing a primary challenge Tuesday. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Big names faced Tuesday primary challenges in Arizona and Florida. In Arizona, John McCain was looking to defeat a tea party upstart who accuses the veteran Republican senator of being too old and insufficiently supportive of Donald Trump. Florida Democrats chose between two members of Congress, establishment pick Patrick Murphy and liberal firebrand Alan Grayson, for an expected battle against Marco Rubio. And former Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz battled to win renomination to her House seat.

But these kinds of contests are, sadly, the exception rather than the rule in our current political system Both traditionally red Arizona and perennially purple Florida provide perfect illustrations of what an endangered species the truly competitive congressional race is. Both states have been at the forefront of unusually bipartisan, voter-led efforts to end partisan gerrymandering. And both have seen partisans do their best to undermine reforms and the will of the voters.

Senator john McCain (R-AZ)

Veteran Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) faced a primary challenge from his right. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Spike TV)

In 2000, 56 percent of Arizonans backed an independent redistricting commission to take the drawing of the state’s congressional and legislative districts. Supporters of the ballot initiative included many Republicans who hoped that more competitive races would make the state’s GOP legislators less extreme.

Meanwhile in Florida, during the big tea party wave of 2010, voters agreed that politicians had to stop drawing congressional and legislative district lines which gave either party an unfair advantage. Super-majorities backed two constitutional amendments which banned any partisan intent or favor in redistricting.

It all sounds terrific: citizens grabbing hold of the ballot and stiff-arming untrustworthy legislators in the only major democracy which grants politicians the power to choose their voters. Arizona’s initiative and Florida’s amendments are precisely the tools needed to bust the insidious power of the gerrymander — an age-old tool of partisan chicanery that Republicans deployed in 2010 and 2011 to give themselves an almost guaranteed majority in the US House of Representatives for the next decade: In state after state, precise new map-making tools and a cloud’s worth of public records and demographic details helped them draw impregnable lines that gave the GOP super-majorities that far exceeded their performance in the popular vote.

But Arizona and Florida are also cautionary tales of just how fiercely politicians will claw to retain this power — and how giant bipartisan majorities, constitutional amendments and independent commissions can be upended and infiltrated by determined partisans. After all, when you draw the lines, you make the rules. Most politicians won’t surrender that authority easily.

The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission is a bit of a misnomer.

Arizona’s Proposition 106 established a new panel to redraw lines, beginning after the 2000 Census. The commission certainly improved the competitiveness of Arizona’s congressional districts. But it did not eliminate politics from redistricting.

The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission is a bit of a misnomer. Four of the panel’s five members are selected by Democratic and Republican legislative leaders. That’s not independent. An independent chairperson breaks the inevitable tie. But during the 2011 process, the Republican governor removed the individual in that position from office. Many Republicans in Arizona remain convinced the removed chairwoman was a Democratic Trojan horse. They’re vowing to insert their partisans into the chair selection process in 2020.

“These independent commissions are being touted to the voters as increasing transparency, removing partisanship, taking the politics out. I think it was the exact opposite,” Scott Freeman, a Republican attorney who served on the 2010 Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, told me. Freeman added that the state’s congressional districts look competitive because the panel gerrymandered four very safe Republican seats in order to make the Democrats competitive in the other five. “Take your hat off to the Democrats,” he said. “Next time, it will be game on.”

After election day 2012, celebratory Democrats revealed a little too much about the authorship of the lines. Crowing over a squeaker of a win for Democrat in a swing district that year, then-Democratic Rep. Ed Pastor told The Arizona Republic: “We took out many of the Republican-leaning precincts from the old district.” A GOP lawsuit against the districts also unearthed a disturbing trail of closed-door maneuvers by Democrats.

The partisan influence was not limited to one side. As ProPublica and the Arizona Capitol Times reported, one of the murkiest groups involved was called FAIR Trust, which hired the lawyers which sued the commission. FAIR Trust, in turn, was funded by a group called the Center to Protect Patient Rights. They received millions from the Koch brothers and allied donors.

“You can’t say it’s an overwhelming success,” Terry Goddard, a former Democratic mayor of Phoenix and state attorney general said of the independent commission process. “But I prefer that to the backroom deals and the amazing gerrymandering that took place the last time the legislature did it.” Trouble is, it seems like Arizona partisans simply moved the backroom someplace new.

The lesson of Arizona is that independent commissions can be corrupted when partisans determine the members — and that commissions need enough members and real safeguards to protect an independent chair from the full force and pressure of both political parties.

The lesson of Florida is even more stark: Politicians will stop at nothing to protect the advantage that comes from drawing the lines. The Fair Districts amendments that Florida voters approved were unambiguous: “Legislative districts or districting plans may not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party.” Just weeks after the amendments passed, some of the most influential Republican strategists and legislative aides gathered to plan their next steps. It would take four years and many heroic court challenges before the story emerged in depositions and cross-examinations.

Essentially, the state Supreme Court found that the Republicans ran a shadow redistricting process — there was one public path designed to conform with the new amendments, and another behind the scenes, where the actual maps were analyzed in exacting detail by high-paid consultants and sneakily filtered into the public process under the names of faux-disinterested citizens, who were in fact friends, spouses and associates of the party hacks. One set of maps used for several districts turned out to be filed from the email address of a former state GOP intern; he would later deny the address belonged to him.

They made a mockery of the legislature’s proclaimed transparent and open process of redistricting.

— Judge Terry Lewis

The court ruled parts of the new maps unconstitutional, mandated new lines and revealed the lengths to which GOP consultants would go in order to rewire legislative and congressional districts in their favor.

“This group of Republican consultants or operatives did in fact conspire to manipulate and influence the redistricting process,” wrote judge Terry Lewis in the summer of 2014, in a scathing ruling which declared at least two districts unconstitutional and sent the maps back to be redrawn. “They made a mockery of the legislature’s proclaimed transparent and open process of redistricting by doing all of this in the shadow of that process… They managed to taint the redistricting process and the resulting map with improper partisan intent.”

Consultants drew partisan maps while claiming they were just political junkies working on a puzzle. These maps were submitted through the public process under the names of GOP friends and allies. Magically or otherwise, these exact maps formed the exact lines of many congressional and state Senate districts. Then the consultants prepped scripts for “citizen” testimony defending the new lines, all the while emailing each other about the need for caution, secrecy and trying to keep their fingerprints as far away as possible.

If not for the Fair Districts amendments, reformers probably would not have had any success in the courts, or in uncovering the secret trail of emails which helped unravel this determined effort. The amendments worked. But in Florida, as in Arizona, the politicians fought to find any way they could to retain influence on the process just as soon as they thought voters were looking the other way.

Those who would argue against the centrality of gerrymandering to our nation’s political extremism and dysfunction suggest that we are “Big Sort”-ing ourselves into homogenous and like-minded districts. However, if that were the case, our highest-paid political minds wouldn’t be risking their careers and reputations to generate maps that will give their side the results they desire.

Redistricting need not work this way; states like California and Washington have created functional, fair-minded and above-board processes. The reformers at FairVote, meanwhile, suggest multimember districts and instant-runoff voting as a structural change necessary to really fix the problem.

Big wins for redistricting reform in Ohio and California, as well as in Arizona and Florida, demonstrate that conservatives and liberals alike are fed up with the kind of politics we get when partisans draw the lines. Conquering this threat to our democracy will require creative state and local solutions, inventive uses of the referendum and initiative process, and new alliances of frustrated citizens that defy party boundaries, rooted in the belief that fair elections reflecting an honest majority are more important than which side wins. As Arizona and Florida’s vote on Tuesday, however, it brings another reminder — these coalitions have to stay vigilant and united even after any victory at the polls.

David Daley

David Daley is the CEO of the Connecticut News Project and the former editor-in-chief of Salon. He is the author of Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America's Democracy. He is also a senior fellow at FairVote. Follow him on Twitter: @DaveDaley3.