What is Democracy? Arizona Edition

Some recent events in Arizona highlight the difficulty of creating, maintaining, and evaluating a democratic system:

1. Redistricting Fight: The governor (with ratification by 2/3 of the state senate) recently acted to remove the non-partisan head of the independent redistricting commission. While there were some alleged improprieties with the process, the main dispute revolves around the nature of the district maps themselves.

Supporters of the governor’s actions have a constitutional argument to justify her decision. They rightly point out that her actions are explicitly within the scope of her oversight authority. Opponents, on the other hand, argue that the creation of unfavorable maps does not rise to the level of “substantial neglect of duty, gross misconduct in office, or inability to discharge the duties of office,” the legal grounds for removing a commissioner.

This is a great example of the challenges of finding the right balance between insulation and accountability. Trying to keep partisanship out of politics while maintaining democratic accountability is no simple task. Wary of their directly elected partisan representatives, voters chose to establish a separate body, a few steps further insulated from the election process, to tackle a contentious issue. But they were also nervous about potential abuses by a completely unaccountable body, so they established a system of narrow but drastic oversight (no role day-to-day, but final disapproval through impeachment). The unintended consequence may ultimately be a more partisan redistricting process. And now the courts, another step insulated from democratic accountability, have gotten involved.


2. Russell Pearce Recall: In an unrelated incident, voters recently recalled the president of the state senate. Russell Pearce gained national attention as the chief supporter of SB 1070, the (in)famous immigration bill passed in 2010. He was defeated by a moderate-to-conservative Republican challenger in a race with no Democratic challenger.

In a post-election statement, Pearce argued (correctly) that he would have won a ‘normal’ election. That is because it would have taken place in two parts: First, he would have defeated Lewis among the subset of voters who participate in Republican primaries, a more conservative group than the average voter or even the average registered Republican. Then, facing a Democratic challenger in a heavily-Republican district, he would have won again and secured his seat in the state senate.

So which election scenario is more democratic? Given a choice between a Democrat and a Republican, voters in District 18 consistently choose Republicans. But when given the choice between two Republicans, the whole body of voters (as opposed to Republican primary voters) chose the more moderate of the two. It seems that the recall election produced an outcome that better reflected the preferences of the voters as a whole. (The 2003 gubernatorial recall in California had the same effect.)

So should we eliminate primaries or otherwise reform that system? The answer, strictly from the perspective of seeking to match electoral outcomes with democratic preferences, would seem to be yes. But as with the scuffle over the redistricting commission, we should be cautious of the potential unintended consequences of dramatic reform.

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