by Mary Jo Pitzl – Oct. 11, 2011 12:00 AM
The Arizona RepublicTUCSON – Arizona’s next round of legislative races could include up to eight districts out of 30 in which either a Republican or a Democrat would have an equal chance of winning, under a draft plan approved Monday.

There also could be 10 districts in which a member of a racial minority would have a good chance of winning, according to the legislative draft map approved on a 4-1 vote by the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission.

Those numbers are an increase from the current legislative map, which was drawn to have nine districts favorable to minorities and in which four districts were deemed competitive.

• See the legislative draft map

The vote came one day before today’s start of a 30-day comment period and one week after the commission adopted a new congressional map that already has drawn rebukes from Republicans.

Monday’s map may offer more fodder for debate, as commission members acknowledged they need more information before putting a final stamp on the plan, which will determine match-ups in legislative elections over the next decade.

Commissioner Richard Stertz reflected that need for further data when he cast the lone “no” vote.

“I think this is one of those maps where we’re going to have to vote on it and see what’s in it,” said Stertz, one of two Republicans on the five-member commission.

But the other commissioners said that they felt confident the work they completed in the past week was a good starting point and that the upcoming public comment will be vital to adjusting the map.

“I hope the public shows up and gives us a lot of feedback on it and tells us about their communities of interest and tells us about the error of our ways,” said Commissioner Scott Freeman, the other GOP member of the panel.

He said he had “serious concerns” that the map lacked needed data, such as voter figures from 2004 and 2006, but he voted for the draft plan to get the discussion going.

The map was based heavily on work done by Freeman and Democratic Commissioner Linda McNulty, as they worked to merge their competing versions of a legislative map into one.

It reconfigures Arizona’s legislative boundaries based on population changes tracked by the 2010 census and adjusted according to criteria spelled out in the Arizona Constitution.

Those criteria include equal population – an average of 213,000 people for each of the 30 districts; respect for “communities of interest,” where people share cultural and social bonds; respect for governmental and geographic boundaries; adherence to the Voting Rights Act to protect minority voters; compact boundaries; and competitiveness.

The Constitution forbids commissioners from considering the addresses of incumbents and candidates.

A quick analysis of the map shows that in 17 of the 30 districts, Republicans have an edge in voter registration. Democrats lead in nine districts, and independent voters hold slim registration leads in four districts.

However, voter registration is only one of several measures the commission used in trying to make the districts competitive. They also looked at voter behavior in various configurations in the 2008 and 2010 general elections.

Based on those statistics, Freeman said, there could be as many as eight districts that give either party an equal shot. But commissioner member José Herrera, a Democrat, said he saw only six districts he believed would be competitive.

Commission Chairwoman Colleen Coyle Mathis said it’s hard to say how many districts in the new map are competitive.

“I think it’s in the eye of the beholder right now,” she said. “Do you look at registration? Do you look at (voter) performance?”

There are similarities to the current legislative map: For example, Tempe is divided into two districts, with the area generally south of the Superstition Freeway in the same district as the Ahwatukee area of Phoenix and west Chandler.

The rest of Chandler is in a district with Sun Lakes. The bulk of Scottsdale is in the same district as Fountain Hills, as is currently the case.

There are proposed changes in Pinal County, one of the fastest-growing areas in the state over the past decade.

One district follows the Interstate 10 corridor, pulling in communities such as Marana, Casa Grande and Eloy. Another district runs up the eastern edge, encompassing Oro Valley, Coolidge, Florence and communities in the “Copper Corridor,” such as Globe and San Manuel.

Metro Phoenix is home to four of the so-called “minority-majority” districts, which are drawn to ensure that minority voting rights are protected as required by federal law. They are generally in central Phoenix and the Valley’s west side.

The commission also created a district with a heavy Native American influence in northeastern Arizona, covering six Indian tribes, including the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe. That district has a voting-age population that is 62 percent Native American.

Flagstaff was a point of contention during the commission’s deliberations, which ran through last weekend. The northern Arizona city is separated from the tribal lands that are part of the current district and is put within boundary lines that extend into the Verde Valley.

House Speaker Andy Tobin, R-Prescott, said last week that he doesn’t believe Flagstaff should be categorized with the Verde Valley, saying they have distinct differences.