(Janeen Jones/Center for Public Integrity)
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This story also appeared in HuffPost

Some of the written public comments flowing into Arizona’s independent redistricting commission during its April 27 meeting struck similar notes: Arizonans describing themselves as transplants to the state, worried about the partisan ties of one of the companies bidding to handle the high-stakes redrawing of political maps. 

“I moved here from DC two years ago because it isn’t a very political state,” began one, adding, “I just don’t think it is appropriate for Bernie’s consulting group to redraw Arizona’s map. The partisanship in that is very alarming and I fear they will manipulate the system.”

Another: “I moved here a few years ago to get away from the prominent political culture in Colorado…. I think that Bernie’s consulting group is too political to redraw Arizona’s maps and I don’t think they have Arizona’s best interest in mind.”

Redistricting maps — redrawn once every decade — help determine which party will hold political power. That means intense battles even in states, such as Arizona, that have taken steps to reduce politicians’ control over the results. 

The Arizona commission received an avalanche of comments during its meeting. A Center for Public Integrity review found hundreds of them echoed calls to action boosted online by Republican political figures and conservative social media pages that also have promoted the Arizona Senate’s controversial review of the 2020 election in Maricopa County. 

The nexus suggests that nationally, the forces sowing doubts about the 2020 vote could focus their attention on redistricting to sway future elections. 

The comments submitted during the Arizona commission’s meeting ran to 87 pages, nearly six times longer than that for any prior meeting.

In the days following the meeting, Democrats asked supporters to send their own cut-and-paste comments to the commission in response. Phrases from those appear more than 100 times in comments submitted to the commission.

Experts say independent redistricting commissions — also in charge of drawing legislative and congressional maps in California, Colorado and Michigan, the latter two for the first time — are a better way to handle the once-a-decade effort. States where one political party completely controls the process, they warn, are more likely to produce gerrymandered districts. Democrats, as part of a sweeping proposed overhaul of federal voting and campaign finance laws, have proposed they be used to draw all congressional districts.

“The idea isn’t that you’re going to have perfect mapdrawers who are perfectly neutral. This isn’t a temple full of Solomons dispensing wisdom,” said redistricting expert Michael Li, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. “You put checks and balances so one party doesn’t make all the decisions.”

But independent commissions will still face partisans trying to gain an advantage, just as states that use other methods always have, said Benjamin Schneer, an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government who co-authored a brief on Arizona’s redistricting commission. And it’s difficult to find wholly independent people or firms to work on maps. 

“The biggest thing is expecting there to be these attempts, legal [suits] and otherwise, to influence the commission, and setting things up ahead of time so they are insulated and protected,” Schneer said.

As past members of Arizona’s commissions learned the hard way, redistricting will always be a contentious political process. The comments campaign over the mapping consultant choices shows the firepower brought to bear on even the early organizational and staffing decisions connected to the redrawing of the maps. 

Roughly 80% of the comments submitted during the commission’s April 27 meeting, including those echoing the talking points posted to Republican sites, advocated against hiring one of the mapping consultant candidates: HaystaqDNA, which shares executives with the mapping consultant company involved in Arizona’s last redistricting a decade ago. Hundreds more comments were submitted after the meeting, records show, more closely divided.

‘An Obama and Bernie data company’

Comment after comment submitted by the public to the redistricting commission contained similar wording, ideas or phrases.

Around 150, for example, specifically said it would be “inappropriate” to hire HaystaqDNA, a company founded by former Barack Obama campaign staffers known for working with Democratic campaigns and clients, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Most of those comments misleadingly characterized the company’s ties to Obama and Sanders, often using language similar to that found online. 

The written public comments flowing into Arizona’s independent redistricting commission during its April 27 meeting ran to 87 pages, nearly six times longer than that for any prior meeting.

For example, on a public channel on social media and messaging app Telegram called Arizona Red Roots, a post warned, “The company being considered, Haystaq, is an Obama and Bernie data company, which means incredible bias,” and urged members of the public to comment. The Arizona Red Roots channel has also promoted the Arizona Senate’s ongoing review of 2020 election ballots in Maricopa County. A post to the Paradise Republican Women’s Club’s Facebook page used similar language, which was echoed by at least 10 of the comments submitted to the commission during the meeting.

More than 20 wrote, “Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama should have zero say in what our maps look like, and these companies are funded by them at the national level,” with many others using variations on the wording to make the same point. There is no evidence Sanders or Obama would play any role.

Some high-profile Arizona Republicans who have backed the Maricopa County ballot review, including state Sen. Kelly Townsend and former state Rep. Anthony Kern, also put up social media posts urging supporters to oppose the selection of HaystaqDNA.

For their part, national Democratic groups were raising the alarm about the other two mapping consultant bids. Democrats preferred HaystaqDNA and especially objected to a company called National Demographics Corp., which was bidding in partnership with another firm, Timmons Group. All on the Line, a project of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, submitted a petition urging the commission not to choose NDC. 

Democrats reacted to the anti-HaystaqDNA comments with an “urgent redistricting call to action.”

“While our strike force has submitted well-reasoned and documented comments on the three proposals, the GQP has flooded the commissioners with cookie-cutter comments opposing the firm favored by Democrats,” the Coconino County Democratic Party posted on its website April 28, using a QAnon-referencing nickname for the GOP. “NOW is the time to fight fire with fire.” 

The post urged supporters to contact the commission and provided seven cut-and-paste comments, some supportive of HaystaqDNA, some opposing the other two bidders. Some people appear to have submitted multiple comments, and a few cut-and-pasted all seven at once. At least 17 times, comments described NDC as “a consultant with an alarming track record across the country.” 

The Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission and the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Arizona also didn’t want the contract awarded to NDC, the company that worked on Arizona’s maps during the redistricting cycle that took place after the 2000 U.S. census. Both groups cited specific concerns about the firm’s past work. 

The U.S. Department of Justice rejected those maps because, DOJ said, Latino voters were distributed among districts in a way that could have kept them from electing candidates of their choice. At the time, Arizona was one of several states required to preclear maps with the federal government under the Voting Rights Act, a requirement no longer in force after a 2013 Supreme Court decision. Groups opposing NDC pointed to that situation, raised questions about how its maps treated voters of color in other instances, and pointed to judges’ 2019 decision to toss part of NDC President Douglas Johnson’s testimony in a North Carolina case in which he served as an expert witness for Republican lawmakers. Johnson testified that the maps of a deceased Republican expert were different from the maps lawmakers eventually adopted, but subsequently acknowledged his testimony contained errors. 

But NDC, which has handled a long list of redistricting clients in multiple states, had its boosters. Around two dozen comments submitted on April 27 included this phrase: “We want you to hire the National Demographics Corporation – Douglas Johnson.” 

The redistricting commission extended the public comment period and asked each of the companies bidding for the contract to respond to the public criticism. 

In its response letter, Michael Wiley of the Timmons Group, which partnered with NDC to bid for the mapping contract, said the criticisms were misleading or mistaken. He said the Justice Department’s rejection of Arizona’s maps in 2001 came after representatives of a coalition of groups advocating for voters of color initially praised the maps, then changed their minds and withdrew their approval, and the North Carolina judges only discarded a part of Johnson’s testimony connected to a coding error that led to the inaccuracies.

“Redistricting is an important process which automatically makes it high profile. Because of this, there will be a lot of focus and criticism at each step. While some of it will be legitimate, unfortunately some will not be,” Wiley wrote, adding that “groups will try to use this process to further their own agendas.”

In a recent interview with the Center for Public Integrity, NDC’s Johnson said it’s unsurprising that partisan forces would be trying to influence redistricting — but the point, he said, is that the independent commission model means they have to do it from outside the room. 

“What the commissioners need are ideas and constructive ways forward, not a thousand people sending the same email in, no matter what the topic is,” Johnson said. In response to charges of partisanship, he stressed that NDC’s staff has a mix of partisan affiliations and Democrats are the largest group. 

For its part, HaystaqDNA pointed out that all the bidding firms had been criticized for partisan ties and said the majority of its clients aren’t political. Because HaystaqDNA’s experts helped craft maps in 2011 that stood up to court challenges and Justice Department scrutiny, they saved taxpayers millions of dollars, the firm added.

In an email, Ken Strasma, the co-founder and CEO of HaystaqDNA, said the firm fully disclosed its work for Democratic candidates and any campaign contributions, and said the other firms had political ties, too. Like Johnson, he stressed that the firm hasRepublicans and independents on its team in addition to Democrats.

Commission attorney Mary O'Grady speaks with a Casa Grande city council member as they point to a possible map outlining the new congressional landscape during an Arizona redistricting meeting.
Commission attorney Mary O’Grady, left, speaks with Stephen Miller, a Casa Grande city council member, as they point to a possible map outlining the new congressional landscape during a Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission meeting Monday, Oct. 3, 2011, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

As for criticism of the 2011 maps as partisan or influenced by Democrats, he pointed out that Republicans have maintained a majority in the Arizona State Legislature, though it’s closely divided, which “is exactly what you would expect in a swing state with fair, competitive districts.” He described the comments as an “Astroturf campaign,” meaning its grassroots are artificial. 

Democrats hold a slim majority in the state’s U.S. House delegation. Elections experts have found Arizona’s maps to be among the least gerrymandered in the country.

On May 4, after a lengthy private meeting in executive session, the commissioners awarded the mapping consultant contract to Timmons Group and NDC in a 3-2 vote. The two Democratic members, Derrick Watchman and Shereen Lerner, voted no. Both praised their fellow members and the process followed to evaluate the bids but said they were unhappy with the ultimate choice. 

The deciding vote was the commission chair, Erika Schupak Neuberg, the only political independent. Neuberg said she was concerned that HaystaqDNA, which had already been named as the mapping consultant to California’s independent redistricting commission, would be “spread thinner.” 

The next day, the Arizona Red Roots Telegram channel called the decision to award the contract to Timmons and NDC “the selection we wanted.” The disappointed League of Women Voters vowed to keep a close watch on the companies’ work. 

Johnson said he is dedicated “to doing this in an open and transparent manner.” 

At a subsequent commission meeting, Lerner said she felt “compelled to clarify” that HaystaqDNA, despite the many public comments, “are not a socialist company, nor are they owned by Obama or Sanders, both of whom were simply clients.” 

“Obama and Sanders,” she said, “would have had nothing to do with Arizona’s mapping process.”

In an interview, Lerner said she believes all the commissioners want to create the best districts possible, and all knew they would face partisan pressure. Ultimately, she said, there’s no way to tell whether the comments swayed any votes. 

“I know I reviewed things based on merit, and I’m assuming they did as well,” she said. 

Neuberg did not respond to an interview request for this article. During a commission meeting last month, she said she knows members of the public are concerned about “computer generated comments” and large groups encouraging supporters to submit form letters. “We would like to reassure the public that we’re able to distinguish, you know, information that we receive,” she said. But if an organization has thousands of members who take time to submit information, “that’s relevant.”

Following the clues in the redistricting comments

Like many people, Ted Hiserodt, a sales manager in Phoenix, decided to get more involved in politics after the 2016 presidential election. He started working with local groups trying to elect Democrats in his legislative district and volunteered for some state House and Senate campaigns, knocking on doors and calling potential voters. 

As redistricting got underway, he kept an eye on the proceedings. The flood of comments on April 27 took him by surprise. He started poking through them and spotted odd similarities, such as the word “like” in different comments repeatedly missing the “i.” He Googled some commenters and saw that several had an affiliation with Turning Point USA, a Phoenix-based conservative nonprofit. 

The Center for Public Integrity also found the names of 18 matched those of people who appear to be employed by Turning Point USA. One person disclosed an affiliation in her comment, and three others said they were commenting on behalf of Austin Smith, the name of the enterprise director of Turning Point Action, an affiliated group, who also submitted a comment.  

Smith is also the chairman of the Arizona Young Republicans and was acting in that capacity when he reached out to his network to ask people to submit comments to the redistricting commission, said Andrew Kolvet, a Turning Point spokesman. Kolvet said neither Turning Point USA nor Turning Point Action participated in the effort, and any employees who submitted comments did so on their own behalf. Kolvet said he was told Smith’s outreach resulted in hundreds of comments. 

“What the commissioners need are ideas and constructive ways forward, not a thousand people sending the same email in, no matter what the topic is.”

NDC President Douglas Johnson

Hiserodt, meanwhile, submitted one of his own after hearing Lerner, the commissioner, speak about the comments. He offered to share what he had found.

Hiserodt hasn’t heard from anyone, he said in a subsequent interview. But he noticed when submitting his comment that the website started “using the thing where you identify pictures of traffic lights,” known as a CAPTCHA — a system to make sure the submitter is a human rather than a machine. 

The redistricting commission on May 12 asked for a spam filter to be added to the website because it had received many spam emails, said Michele Crank, a public information officer for the commission. That doesn’t necessarily mean any comments were submitted by bots. Using database and other online searches, Public Integrity was able to match many of the commenters to the names of Arizona residents living in the ZIP codes provided to the commission. 

Raphael Ahmed, a resident of Chandler in the suburbs of Phoenix, said he has been closely following redistricting because his wife ran unsuccessfully for state representative two years ago and is considering another bid. He submitted a comment advocating against HaystaqDNA receiving the contract and is active in the state Republican Party. But he said what he really wants is completely independent nonpartisan redistricting. 

He also said he’s concerned about the accuracy of the 2020 U.S. census data, the basis for redistricting. Arizona was widely expected to pick up an additional congressional seat and didn’t. 

Republicans “are concerned about the data because they were expecting a 10th district, and maybe an 11th one,” Ahmed said. 

The imperfect push for Arizona redistricting independence

The redistricting process, and control over it, varies across the country, with state legislators often having final say. Arizona residents in 2000 approved a ballot referendum aimed at ending partisan gerrymandering by taking control over redistricting away from the state Legislature and giving it to a newly created five-member independent commission. In a 2015 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality. 

Six states have moved to overhaul their own redistricting procedures since the last cycle, according to the Brennan Center. Some states have stopped short of independent commissions but tried to limit partisan influence in other ways, such as adopting advisory commissions to help draw the maps or creating incentives for bipartisan agreement. 

In Arizona, the state’s Commission on Appellate Court Nominees creates a pool of potential members who fit the criteria for the commission, and party leaders in each legislative chamber appoint one member each.Those four members elect the fifth. 

Arizona’s political districts, according to its constitution, must be compact, contiguous, preserve communities of interest, respect geographic features and political boundaries, and ensure competitiveness. Balancing those criteria, though, is far from a perfect science.

Arizona saw rapid growth over the past decade, adding nearly 750,000 people, but that wasn’t enough for the state to gain the additional congressional district most expected. Black, Latino and Asian American voters made up more than 70% of the state’s population growth, according to projections by the Brennan Center.  

Unsurprisingly, the maps drawn by both of the previous independent redistricting commissions in Arizona faced fierce legal challenges, though the U.S. Department of Justice accepted the 2011 maps on the first try. In court, Democratic members of the panel acknowledged contact with a Democratic Party official who provided input into the maps. 

Colleen Mathis,
the chair of the
last independent
redistricting commission
in Arizona.
(Arizona Independent
Redistricting Commission)

Colleen Mathis, the chair of the last independent redistricting commission, said the panel was targeted by groups who declined to reveal the funding behind their efforts; one group was later linked to the conservative Koch brothers network. California’s redistricting commission, too, was the target of opaque influence efforts — in that case by Democrats. 

Mathis has repeatedly spoken about the threats and pressure that came her way during her volunteer service on the commission. Republican officials criticized her for voting too often with the Democratic appointees and waged a legal war to remove her. But the state Supreme Court unanimously reinstated her, and the commission’s maps ultimately stood. Despite Republican criticism, Mathis notes, the party kept control of the state Legislature over the past decade.

Mathis’ successor on the current commission, Neuberg, who had said she hopes to build consensus on the commission, has so far joined Republicans in two high-profile 3-2 votes — the mapping consultant decision and hiring the commission’s executive director. 

At a public forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Arizona in June, she said she would have liked more choices for the mapping decision. “But we must work with the hand that is dealt us.”

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Carrie Levine joined the Center for Public Integrity in October 2014 as a federal politics reporter investigating...