INVESTIGATION

Will Arizona's relentless Republican gerrymander decide the 2024 presidential election?

Arizona Republicans have worked long and hard to lock down a majority — and seize power over the state's electors

By David Daley

Published December 4, 2021 12:00PM (EST)

Supporters of President Donald Trump demonstrate at a ‘Stop the Steal’ rally in front of the State Capitol on November 7, 2020 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Supporters of President Donald Trump demonstrate at a ‘Stop the Steal’ rally in front of the State Capitol on November 7, 2020 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

This story was supported by the journalism nonprofit the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

The intersection of South Gilbert and East Warner roads in Gilbert, Arizona, looks like many other places in suburban America. A Shell station, a Jersey Mike's franchise and a car wash that has seen better days stand to the east. Loews and Buffalo Wild Wings hold down the western edge. You'd never guess that this could-be-anywhere crossing is not just crucial to the redistricting wars that will remap America's political landscape heading into the 2022 midterm elections, but that it might determine the future of American democracy. 

Gilbert Road straddles the American divide. In Phoenix's East Valley, it's the demarcation between rapidly diversifying blue Arizona and the similarly booming conservative exurbs. On one side, young professionals, tech workers and new brew pubs are rushing into faux-urban townhouses in newly bustling and gentrifying Chandler. Across the way in Gilbert sit megachurches the size of several city blocks, Black Rifle coffee shops and $700,000 Spanish-style homes in glimmering gated developments invariably named some variety of Estate, Ranch or Vineyard. 

On election night, journalist Garrett Archer — the Twitter-famous data analyst for the NBC affiliate in Phoenix, who knows these precincts as intimately as Steve Kornacki knows counties across swing states — marveled at the way Gilbert Road marked the place where Maricopa County transitioned from red to blue. He almost couldn't believe how precisely it divided Biden supporters and Trump backers in this rapidly evolving state where 10,457 votes gave Biden the nation's narrowest margin of victory anywhere in the nation.

Perhaps no one should have been surprised. Every Thursday evening from July 2020 through the election, flag-waving Trump supporters in MAGA wear and Back the Blue garb took over the eastern corners for massive rallies. Black Lives Matter protesters soon claimed the opposite sides. Proud Boys roamed and chants of "Free Kyle" went up from the Trump side, referring of course to Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager who was recently acquitted on murder charges after shooting three protesters at a Wisconsin rally against police violence. When violence broke out at a Gilbert Road rally in August, and the threat of something more serious than hurled bottles escalated, wary police officers installed traffic barriers between the two sides — both of whom often came armed, sometimes with AR-15s.

Yet this intersection represents even more than Arizona's cultural and political divide. It marks the actual boundary between Arizona's 12th and 17th state legislative districts. The 17th, solidly Republican a decade ago, has rapidly shifted blue, and may now be the state's most competitive district, represented by one Democrat and one Republican in the state House of Representatives. The top three candidates for two House seats were separated by just 1,700 votes. Republicans narrowly held the state Senate seat here in November, a costly battle that attracted nearly $2 million in outside spending alone. The 12th, meanwhile, is so red that Democrats tend not to bother even fielding candidates.

RELATED: GOP already has enough safe seats — through redistricting alone — to win back House in '22

Now this line is about to move. The consequences could be tectonic and will reverberate far beyond this intersection. Manipulate red neighborhoods in district 12 an avenue or two east, attach pieces of rural southeastern districts to pick up population, carefully slice and dice Chandler's creative-class newcomers, and the GOP could build a wall that holds back changing demographics. Biden's margin here was slim, but Arizona's state legislature is even closer. Republicans hold a 31-29 edge in Arizona's state House and a 16-14 advantage in the state Senate. That legislature, meanwhile, has been among the nation's most aggressive on new voting restrictions. It has pioneered the partisan "audits" of the 2020 election, inspired by the Big Lie of election fraud. It includes Republican lawmakers who have introduced legislation that would give the state legislature the power to award presidential electors

If one seat here in LD 17 shifted from red to blue, those efforts would likely end. If Republicans hang on, they could enact even more advantageous laws before the 2024 election, perhaps helping tip the state red again, or if it remains blue, launching a constitutional crisis by replacing electors or sending a competing slate to the Capitol for Jan. 6, 2025. 

A single line, shifted by just an avenue, would change political power nationwide. Arizona Republicans have worked tirelessly, sneakily and quite effectively to ensure that they will have the power to determine where this line goes. 

*  *  *

"We are in Trumpland now. We are not winning here," says Ajlan Kurdoglu, as we wind down South Val Vista Road in Gilbert and pass yet another Black Rifle Coffee on the way back toward Gilbert Road and the district line. My tour guide knows these streets better than almost anyone. As the Democratic candidate for state senate in LD 17, he's spent hundreds of hours doorknocking and barnstorming nearby neighborhoods. 

"Throw these Republicans into my district and you would make it impossible to win. When you're right on the edge of competitiveness," he explains, "and you move just these couple precincts? This district would be unwinnable." 

Kurdoglu is spending this steamy Saturday in late July giving me a tour of these lines and all the adjacent avenues, narrating how the politics and demographics change block to block. If you need an example of how a single election matters, the Republican who defeated him, Sen. J.D. Mesnard, has spent his day at Donald Trump's rally 35 minutes away in Phoenix, being praised by name by the former president. Trump thanked GOP lawmakers for their "great job" and "tremendous courage" in questioning the state's presidential election results with a sham audit, despite the state's results having been certified by Arizona's election officials as accurate. 


Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.


"These maps that they're going to create," Kurdoglu says later over dinner, "if they're not fair, the Republicans' 31-29 advantage in the House could become 33-27 or 35-25, in an instant. And it will take more than a decade to get back to where we are. Just because of the map. Not that people of Arizona voted in a different way. Just rigging the lines."

Politicians in Arizona aren't supposed to be able to rig these maps. An ostensibly independent commission draws the lines; Arizona voters established it via initiative in 2000, frustrated with a one-party legislature that had become a hothouse for extremism. They wanted to take the power to draw maps away from politicians and ensure balanced, competitive districts instead. But determined partisans have found every loophole and pressure point. The commission's clumsy, ineffective design has been unable to bear the strain. Nothing has gone as planned.

"Republicans have definitely done as good a job as you possibly can to manipulate the process and spin it in their favor," says state Sen. Martin Quezada, the Democrat who has been ringing the alarm bells about Arizona redistricting the longest. "They've done all the background work that they could to create a process that will be biased in their favor. Now it's just a matter of the process playing itself out."

Quezada has a grim respect for what he calls the GOP "strategic brilliance." Danny Ortega, the state's leading Latino civil rights attorney, who has seen every trick in the book over several cycles of redistricting here, uses different well-chosen words. "Hijacked would be kind. Rigged would be more appropriate," says Ortega of this commission. He calls the GOP shenanigans a "frontal assault on voting rights," and an effort by white Arizonas to "control those they believe are a threat to their long-term dominance."

"Never in my life have I seen a more rigged process," he tells me. "Past commissions have to some degree been partisan, but never to the extent of this one. Because they control everything, they will be allowed to do anything. It's a complete takeover by the Republican Party. It is as bald and in your face of a 'fuck you' as one could imagine."

The "strategic brilliance" Quezada refers to goes back years. GOP efforts to capture Arizona's independent redistricting commission began almost immediately after the 2011 commission finished its work on the most competitive and responsive maps in the state's history. By November 2020, as Arizona's demographics changed and the state became progressively bluer, those maps ensured that the legislature reflected those developments. "Our map held up," says Andrew Dreschler of HaystaqDNA, the 2011 mapmaking consultant. "Our work was 100 percent transparent. The maps were precleared by the Department of Justice the first time — for the first time in state history." 

RELATED: Now Ohio Republicans want to give themselves 86% of seats — in a state Trump won with 53%

The GOP didn't see it that way. Their supermajorities in the state legislature were erased; the party's edge in both chambers narrowed to a single seat. They impeached the independent chairwoman of the 2011 commission, and fought the maps in court for more than five years. But they also saw the demographic and political onslaught coming and got to work on a plan for 2021.

"Republicans got caught on their heels in 2010 and they worked a long time to make sure it didn't happen again," says Dr. Stephen Nuno, a professor of political science at Northern Arizona University and one of the state's leading experts on redistricting and the Latino vote. "The lesson they learned was that they'd have to reach into their bag of tricks to maintain power. And they've got a pretty neat bag of tricks."

It helped that Arizona's commission is pretty easy to game. Here's the loophole. The "independent" body actually consists of two Democratic appointees and two Republicans, vetted by the purportedly nonpartisan Commission on Appellate Court Appointments board (yes, CACA for short), and then selected by their party's legislative leadership. Then, CACA narrows down the pool of independents to five, and the four commissioners select the chair from those finalists. The independent chair is the tie-breaker. It's child's play, with a little foresight and fierce partisan desire. Pack the board, choose the chair, dominate the maps.

"It all boils down to who the chair is," says Andi Minkoff, a Democratic commissioner during the 2001 cycle. 

"They've obviously stacked the deck," says Tomas Robles, executive director of Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA), one of the state's leading Latino activist groups. "When the independent voter chosen as the independent chair has a history of being a donor to right-wing candidates and legislators, it ensured three Republican-friendly commissioners when the lines will be drawn."

*  *  * 

The GOP scheme began in earnest before the ink was dry on the 2011 maps. In 2013, Arizona Republicans first admitted that they had already begun searching for a Trojan horse, someone they could disguise as an independent chair in 2021. The chairman of the state GOP launched a new commission that would "monitor" the 2021 commission, chaired by well-connected conservative attorney Michael Liburdi and including members from each of the state's nine U.S. House districts. When I met with one of the 2011 Republican commissioners in 2015, reporting for my book "Ratf**ked," about the last redistricting cycle, he foreshadowed the strategy as well. "Take your hat off to the Democrats," he said, suggesting, without evidence, that they'd done the same thing in 2011. "They successfully produced five Manchurian candidates, and this redistricting turned out to be lost at the appellate court nomination level. Next time, it will be game on."

Liburdi knew the process well, because he attended most of the 2011 commission's meetings — while refusing to identify who he was representing — as an attorney with Fair Trust, a murky organization funded stealthily by the Koch brothers. Emails connected Liburdi and Fair Trust to Arizona's Republican congressional delegation; campaign finance records later identified $150,000 that poured from the Koch-funded Center to Protect Patient Rights into a group called FAIR Trust (short for Fair Arizona Independent Redistrict) that helped fund Liburdi and the state GOP's unsuccessful efforts to fight the legislative and congressional maps in court.

When Republican Doug Ducey was elected Arizona's governor in 2014, Liburdi joined him as chief counsel and Kirk Adams — House speaker during the 2011 redistricting process — came on board as Ducey's chief of staff. Together, Liburdi and Adams forced a dramatic makeover of the once nonpartisan appellate courts commission — beginning with their first appointments just nine days after Ducey was sworn in — with an eye on packing additional justices onto Arizona's state Supreme Court, then influencing the 2021 independent redistricting commission. They would succeed on both fronts.

RELATED: GOP gerrymandering will backfire on Republicans — eventually

"Republicans knew that the general public, the media, your average voter, has no idea what this commission is. They have no idea that it could be manipulated in this way, and no idea what the end result of that would be," says Quezada. "But the Republicans did. When this governor came in, he saw that the commission could be biased in that way. He jumped on that as a strategy and he carried that out."

Under former Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, the 15-person appellate court board — which must, by constitutional order, "reflect the diversity of Arizona's population" — was evenly divided among eight Democratic appointees and seven Republicans. Ducey's team took it over lock, stock and barrel. By 2019, just before Donald Trump appointed Liburdi to the federal bench, Ducey had reshuffled the board so that it included zero Democrats and just one person of color. It did, however, include prominent Ducey advisers, donors and their family members

Among the selections: a Chamber of Commerce executive married to a senior Ducey adviser, a counsel in his attorney general's office, a professor at a Christian college married to an ally and former GOP gubernatorial nominee, the former statewide director for then-GOP Sen. Jeff Flake, and prominent former Ducey aides. Even the "independents" Ducey tapped had deep Republican ties; one major donor and precinct committeewoman had conveniently just left the party, while another, the vice president of government affairs at the Arizona Commerce Authority, was married to the daughter of a well-known state senator.

"It's brazen," says Quezada. "They hijacked the appellate court commission with the intention of hijacking redistricting."

This tilted the AIRC before a single commissioner was chosen. CACA narrowed down the applicant pool from more than 135 people to the final 10 Republicans, 10 Democrats and 5 independents. That means Ducey's hand-picked advisers and political aides could stack the deck by knocking out the sharpest Democratic candidates, and also stud the final five independents with closet Republicans from the effort Liburdi had begun as far back as 2013. "This has been going on for a while," Quezada says, "and they've been working with these individuals for awhile."

*  *  *

Indeed, CACA's selections for the independent chair leaned in one direction: Right. 

Actual independence was difficult to discern. Four of the five finalists, while registered as independents, had either strong public opinions, close ties and/or financial interests through jobs, family and partners aligned with the state's political power structure. 

They included Robert Wilson, whose Flagstaff gun store hosted rallies for Donald Trump headlined by Rep. Andy Biggs, chair of the House Freedom Caucus; Thomas Loquvam, a well-connected general counsel and registered lobbyist for one of Arizona's major utilities, whose sister, Jessica Pacheco, in 2014, helped direct another prominent utility's seven-figure "dark-money" operation against Democratic candidates; Megan Carollo, the owner of a floral boutique whose partner advises the Arizona Mexico Commission and serves as president of a firm that has received more than $1 million in contracts from the governor's budget; and the eventual choice, Erika Schupak Neuberg, a psychologist and national board member of the hawkish American Israel Public Affairs Committee and a prolific donor to Ducey-related Super PACs, who had gifted nearly $100,000 largely to Republican candidates nationwide (along with a smattering of largely hawkish Democrats like Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, and primary opponents to members of the liberal "Squad" such as Rep. Ilhan Omar) and within Arizona, including Ducey himself

In July 2020, Ducey finally relented — to avoid a lawsuit over the makeup of the CACA commission, Quezada says — and appointed three Democrats to the board. Still, Ducey played cute, ignoring the recommendations of the State Bar of Arizona. The posting for applicants went live days before Christmas. Some Democrats complained that they were contacted for sham interviews after the administration had made up its mind to reappoint loyalists. One of the Democrats he ultimately named was Kevin Taylor, who runs his own private security and investigation agency, and twice ran for Pinal County sheriff. In an exclusive interview, Taylor unloaded for the first time on the process he saw unfold behind closed doors.

"The Democrats never had a chance," he says. "That guy from Flagstaff" — referring to Wilson — "Trump parked his bus outside his gun store for a big old party and that's OK. A big old Trump bus in the driveway. They said that! It was tough. At some point I realized that I was fighting a losing battle. It was like pissing on the wind." 

Taylor says he couldn't believe that Neuberg's voluminous donations to Republican candidates didn't disqualify her. "Money buys you what you want," he says. "I can't say if she's good or bad — but it's a lot of money."

How confident is Taylor that the process and the maps will be fair? He gives a very short answer: "I'm not."

*  *  *

Democrats recognized they'd been squeezed. The four party-appointed commissioners choose the independent chair together from those five candidates. If they deadlocked, the power reverted to CACA. Arizona Democrats believe — and multiple Republican insiders confirmed to me — that several of the finalists were GOP plants. During his interview, Lovoquam confirmed that many of his first legal clients were handed to him by none other than Liburdi — whose job it had been to stack the applicant pool with friendlies — before he ascended to the bench. Democrats unsuccessfully challenged the eligibility of Wilson and Lovoquam, but when that failed, settled on Neuberg as a compromise, hoping that her donations to some Arizona Democrats might suggest an open mind. 

RELATED: The new tyranny in Texas will be America's future — unless Democrats act now

Curiously, according to a search of the FEC database, Neuberg's donations favored Republicans by a margin of almost three to one through 2018, but then began to tilt toward Democrats in 2019 and 2020. According to the Arizona Republic, Neuberg decided to get involved in redistricting in January 2019, so this could well have been an effort to strengthen her candidacy and create a veneer of nonpartisanship after a lifetime within the GOP. Neuberg voted in Republican primaries in 2010, 2012 and 2014, according to Arizona public records. But by at least 2017 she had left the GOP and registered as an independent, with just enough time to qualify as a potential chair.

Several Arizona Republicans, meanwhile, told me that they had the process lined up to install either Wilson or Lovoquam — both seen as sure things — but that Neuberg had been Ducey's choice from the beginning. Some said they were mystified by it and feared the potential for a David Souter-style backfire, referring to the George H.W. Bush appointee to the Supreme Court who moved steadily leftward during his time on the bench.

But so far, Republicans have not had to worry: Neuberg has been a loyal foot soldier. Nearly every crucial vote has broken along a 3-2 line, with her siding with the two Republicans. (Neuberg declined an interview request when I approached her at the end of a public hearing in Phoenix in August. "I have to use the bathroom," she said, adding that she would not be available after that, either.)

"I don't want to say that the chairwoman has bad intentions," says Desmond of HaystaqDNA. "But when push comes to shove she cares more about appeasing Republicans rather than fair maps. It seems like they are playing for keeps at every single major decision point."

When the commission looked to hire an executive director, they passed on Kristina Gomez, who had served as deputy director in 2011 and a community outreach director in 2001. Neuberg and the Republicans said they preferred someone who had not been associated with the previous commission. The same commissioners also expressed concerns about Keely Hartsell, the chief deputy recorder in Maricopa County, because she had previously worked for state House Democrats.

The commission's choice, however, was himself deeply connected — to Arizona Republicans. Since September 2011, Brian Schmitt had worked as chief of staff for Jim Waring, a Republican city councilman in Phoenix. Schmitt's family runs one of the city's priciest jewelry stores, Schmitt Jewelers, and have been reliable donors to Arizona's Republican political establishment for more than a decade. 

Schmitt, meanwhile, failed to disclose on his resume that he'd done work for Sen. Martha McSally during her losing 2020 campaign against Democrat Mark Kelly. An FEC records search shows that Schmitt was paid $63,652.44 by the McSally team in November 2020; Schmitt later said that was for organizing one rally at the tail end of the campaign. FEC records also reveal that the Republican National Committee reimbursed Schmitt hundreds of dollars in travel expenses in both 2020 and 2018. 

But while Republicans and former Republicans are well represented on the panel, critics suggest that other crucial voices are missing. "There's no Latinos on staff. None. There's no Black folks on staff," says Victoria Grijalva Ochoa, the redistricting coordinator of One Arizona, a coalition of Latino and progressive organizations. "There's no Asian folks on staff. The Asian-American growth in the East Valley has been well-documented, but there's no Asian-American representation on staff either."

*  *  *

The next crucial choice would be to select a mapmaker. The commission had two options: HaystaqDNA, who drew the responsive 2011 maps that so frustrated Republicans, or a joint application by the Timmons Group and National Demographics Corporation. Timmons had no experience in redistricting. NDC drew the 2001 Arizona maps that were originally rejected by George W. Bush's Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act. NDC was co-founded and led by a controversial mapmaker, Doug Johnson, who has also spent the last 20 years aligned with the conservative Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College in California. More recently, Virginia Republicans nominated Johnson to serve as special master on that state's maps, after Republican intransigence imploded the state's new commission process. (The Virginia GOP only suggested sure things; another nomination was Adam Kincaid, executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, which has led the GOP's gerrymandering efforts.)

"The fix was in with our maps," said Minkoff, the Democratic commissioner from the 2001 cycle. "NDC manipulated them. They manipulated me. They're bad guys. Doug is a Republican mapmaker and demographer. It is a real problem. I don't know how they could possibly select him after everything that happened here."

Republicans went all in for Timmons and NDC; in April, conservative State Sen. Wendy Rogers even tweeted, "The two Republican commissioners say there need to be a lot more public comments made against HaystaqDNA now! Please do it!" (In fact, that would have violated the commissioners' responsibilities under state contract provisions.)

Salon filed a public records request for any documents, communications and other records that would relate to any investigation, action or other steps taken with regard to Rogers' tweet and what it revealed about the actions of the Republican commissioners. The IRC said they could not produce those records because there is no record that any "investigation, action or other steps" were taken. 

Perhaps most concerning for Latino activists in this state where close to one-third of the population is Latino — and that proportion continues to rise — is that NDC and its president have repeatedly come under fire for drawing maps that consistently underrepresent Latinos and confer unfair advantages on white incumbents and Republicans. 

"Timmons Group may know about mapping generally, but they know nothing when it comes to redistricting," says Ochoa. "And if the experience and expertise Timmons is relying on for redistricting is NDC — a firm that has a long and storied history of being discriminatory towards exactly the communities that we're concerned the commission won't interact with and won't reach out to — then you're making a very clear point about who you're protecting and what interests you're looking out for."

RELATED: How North Carolina became a laboratory for the GOP's subversion of democracy

In a detailed response letter to the commission, Timmons Group officials said the criticism mischaracterized NDC's work; Johnson himself has called similar criticism inaccurate and misleading

NDC's critics point to the firm's work in the New Jerusalem school district in California, where a wealthy river club was divided in three ways to benefit white incumbents at the expense of Latinos on the other side of the school district. This map required cutting across an interstate highway to grab a single home. The district's deputy superintendent was later hired by NDC. 

NDC's city council map in Martinez, California, was lambasted by a Superior Court judge and compared to the gerrymander of Massachusetts state Senate districts in 1812 that gave the insidious practice its name. "Bluntly, the map verges on self-parody," ruled Judge Charles Treat. The map was designed to ensure that four incumbents would all win re-election. In the process, it cracked Latino votes by spreading them across four districts. The council's vice mayor later admitted the motives behind the map. It was modeled after NDC's maps in Pasadena, California, which have also been accused of protecting incumbents. 

But Johnson has had perhaps his most embarrassing moments in court. When recidivist Republican gerrymanderers in North Carolina Republicans needed a consultant willing to testify on behalf of their latest set of maps — which had been drawn by disgraced GOP mastermind Thomas Hofeller — the lawyers and legislators went to Johnson for help. Johnson and Hofeller shared longtime ties with the right-wing Rose Institute. The 2019 case did not go well for the GOP, which saw its advantageous congressional and state legislative maps thrown out as unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders. Things went even worse for Johnson.

Johnson offered expert testimony on a key point in the case: Whether Hofeller secretly drew the North Carolina maps before the public mapping process began, so state legislators could later introduce them as their own. Hofeller's private files, discovered by his daughter after his death, suggested that he had, and revealed maps that had been almost entirely finished by June 2017, prior to his contract with the state, a month before the legislative committee tasked with the job held its first meeting, and two months before lawmakers finalized criteria.

Johnson testified that the Hofeller maps were dramatically different from the ones lawmakers adopted. But his analysis was found to be sloppy, misleading — and wrong. Johnson reached his conclusion by simply omitting 11 districts that showed 100 percent overlap with Hofeller's lines. When confronted with this failure during cross-examination, he conceded the series of errors and said he must have been tired. The three-judge panel did not give him such an easy pass. They struck Johnson's entire testimony and his expert report, and in a scathing section of the court's decision, issued a devastating critique of his work. 

The court found that Johnson's "speculation does not withstand minimal scrutiny," described his testimony as "not credible" and "unpersuasive," and even noted that Johnson had served as an expert in four other cases and that "courts in all four cases had rejected his analysis." Indeed, in four California cases, Johnson's expert testimony was called "unreliable and not persuasive," and his analysis or methodology described as "unsuitable," "troubling," "lack[ing] merit" or "inappropriate." In a dismissive riposte, the judges wrote: "This Court joins these other courts in rejecting Dr. Johnson's methodologies, analyses, and conclusions."

One Arizona's Ochoa says that the party-line decision to hire NDC "doesn't leave us with a lot of hope" for the ensuing maps.

"A mapping consultant with a history of discriminatory votes toward Latinos, hired with a split vote — in a state with a massive Latino population," she says. "All of these decisions are exactly what's troubling from this commission."

*  *  *

Ochoa and I talked over coffee in downtown Phoenix one Sunday morning in July, the second consecutive weekend morning we spent watching the Arizona commission accept public comment on what citizens would like to see in their maps. While activist groups have tried to encourage young people and Latinos to testify about their communities of interest, three well-funded conservative groups and local Republican committees helped coordinate more than half the speakers at both hearings that I attended. 

Their testimony was easy to identify because it stuck close to two talking points: First, that the 2011 commission was too focused on creating competitive districts. Second, that they wanted districts of equal population, claiming, incorrectly, that the 2011 districts were drawn with a population variance of as much as 12 percent. Those talking points were distributed by a group called Fair Maps Arizona and included on their web site as part of advice on "how to write effective testimony." The organization also offered one-on-one help writing testimony, as well as to finish or review draft testimony.

Ochoa knows that she is staring down the state's white political establishment, and fears that packing Latino voters, in particular, into safe districts will set them back years after all the progress of the last decade. "When the maps change now, not only are you getting rid of all the work that's happened politically with communities of color for the last 10 years, you might also get rid of all the representation and harm the very legitimate policy issues that these communities face," she says.

Nuno, meanwhile, the NAU professor, says he believes that Republicans could lock in a 6-3 or 7-2 congressional map — ending a 5-4 Democratic edge — and create state legislative districts that hold back demographic change. Arizona still elects two members per state House district in at-large races, he points out, which means that with racially polarized voting, Latinos could make up 30 percent or more of a district, but still not win either seat. This will also be the first redistricting cycle after the Shelby County decision, which ended Voting Rights Act preclearance protection for communities of color. "We are going to see the outer limits of map optimization over the next couple of months," Nuno says. "Whatever progress Democrats made in the last 10 years will be turned back. It may take another 10 years to come back to parity with where they are today."

Republicans, Nuno says, "know how to spread the Republicans around. They are very serious about this."

If the commission decided, for example, to move just a couple thousand Republicans into House district 20, they could oust Democratic Rep. Judy Schweibert, who narrowly captured one of the two seats in this rapidly changing district in northwest Maricopa County. The former teacher, first elected in 2020, ripped a seat from Republicans as the district's demographics evolved; the three top candidates were bunched within 3,600 votes of each other. Her seatmate might be the Trumpiest member of the Arizona state house, Rep. Shawnna Bolick. It was Bolick who proposed the law that would allow the Arizona legislature to overturn presidential election results, maintain ultimate control over the state's  electoral votes, and make it easier for those who disagree with an election result to try and overturn it in the courts, regardless of the evidence.

As Schweibert drives me around the district on a steamy Tuesday morning, it is clear that some of the poorer, struggling neighborhoods surrounding a massive and now largely abandoned shopping mall could be elided into already Democratic districts to its south. Stretch the northern border, meanwhile, an avenue or two toward streets with names like Deer Valley and Happy Valley, boasting wealthy new development, and this district would easily elect two Republicans again. "If we don't get a fair map," she tells me, "we're stuck with another 10 years of the kind of legislation that we've had here. So it's huge."

That's why these lines matter. They are the difference between two Shawnna Bolicks or two Judy Schweiberts, in a state that could easily prove decisive in the 2024 Electoral College, a state where one vote separates the two parties in both legislative chambers but where the divide between Democrats and Republicans could not be starker.

Bolick's bill to hand the legislature control over electors ultimately did not make it to a vote. A handful of Republicans refused to take that extreme step. But when I ask Quezada what will happen if Republicans expand their majority after the 2022 elections, under new district lines, he says he expects the proposal will surface again, with more support.

"I think that's not a far-off reality," he says. "The fact that they were proposing those types of things already is proof of that. They wouldn't have thrown that out there if they weren't serious."

"These lines that we're talking about right here could impact the entire nation," he says. "The scale of it is a little mind-boggling sometimes."

*  *  *

In late October, the Arizona commission approved a set of draft maps. The state legislative map packs the state's growing Latino population into just seven opportunity districts. 

As for Gilbert Road and legislative district 17? Under the new map, that's now legislative district 13. And while it remains competitive on paper — as a 53 percent Republican seat — the reality is something different. The district evolves by shifting that Gilbert Road boundary to the east and including five new precincts, four of which are heavily Republican.

Republicans strategized for eight years to pull this district boundary in their direction. Most of this, from planning to execution, was pulled off brazenly and in plain sight, within the admittedly flexible parameters of existing election law. If Republicans in the Arizona legislature pull off an Electoral College power play in 2024 that throws the nation into constitutional chaos, many Americans will be stunned that this kind of authoritarian hardball could possibly happen here. In fact it happened right here, on a nondescript commercial stretch of suburban roadway — and we should have seen it coming.


David Daley

David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon, is the author of the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”

MORE FROM David Daley


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Arizona Election Reform Gerrymandering Investigation Redistricting Reporting