The “what” and “why” of the Arkansas Congressional Redistribution | Opinion

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It’s easier to know what someone did than why they did it, but the “why” can be the most important part. And that brings us to the map of Congress drawn this month by the Arkansas legislature.

Under the US Constitution, states must redesign their Congressional constituencies every 10 years in response to population changes determined by the census. This ensures that each district contains roughly the same population – approximately 750,000 in Arkansas.

This normally happens in the spring, but the census figures arrived late this year, so lawmakers suspended and returned on September 29.

They created over 30 cards. Nothing has traction. Everyone looked after the interests of their neighborhood, as they should. It was difficult to add the numbers. The Republican-led legislature was working on a 2011 map drawn by Democrats losing power and hoping in vain to save a seat. Meanwhile, the session was embroiled in debates over the mandates of COVID vaccines.

Lawmakers ultimately opted for a bill sponsored by Rep. Nelda Speaks, R-Mountain Home, and Senator Jane English, R-North Little Rock. It divides Pulaski County, the largest in the state, into three congressional districts: 1st, 2nd, and 4th. Currently, the county is completely contained in the 2nd, which covers central Arkansas. Part of Little Rock will go in the 4th district and part of North Little Rock in the 1st.

Only one other county was divided – Sebastian, the second largest in the state and the home of Fort Smith. It is one of five counties divided in the last redistribution 10 years ago, and its representatives were not happy to see it happen again. They would prefer to deal with a member of Congress who is focused on the needs of their county.

Sebastian County has a legitimate complaint, but not a legal course of action. The situation in Pulaski County, however, will lead to litigation. The new cards remove 21,000 black voters from the 2nd arrondissement and distribute them around the 1st and 4th.

The dilution of the minority vote potentially creates a civil rights problem. Meanwhile, lawmakers have brought Cleburne County, which is almost all white and not really a part of central Arkansas, into the 2nd.

African Americans vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. The 2nd district was the only one where Democrats were halfway through the races for Congress. In 2020, State Senator Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, a native of Willisville and a University of South Arkansas graduate who is African American, led a strong campaign against US Representative French Hill. Hill still won, 55.4% to 44.6%, which is not really that close.

Was it the intention of lawmakers to discriminate on the basis of race? Senator Jason Rapert, R-Conway, chairman of the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Government Affairs which first heard the redistribution bills, said legislative leaders and staff were doing their best to do not include race in the discussion. He said he would have opposed any effort to draw lines based on race.

Still, you can bet there will be a trial. Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who as a lawyer represented the NAACP in a 1990 redistribution case, expressed concern about the effects of the new map on minority populations and refused to sign the bill. He did not veto it knowing that lawmakers would overturn it, so it will become law without his signature.

From now on, the courts will decide. On the basis of case law, complainants must prove that lawmakers intentionally engaged in racial discrimination. Intentions are hard to prove.

Meanwhile, lawmakers can legally act with partisan motives. If they wish, they can say they were trying to move Democrats, not African Americans, out of District 2. They can also argue that they were just trying to add up.

The thing is, it wasn’t necessary. Elliott told the Senate that 11 of the maps tabled by lawmakers did not separate any county, let alone cities. Arkansas has become such a red state that Republicans could easily draw a map that protects their party’s gains without triggering a civil rights lawsuit.

It will be up to the courts to decide what legislators did and why they did it. Again, intentions are hard to prove.

Steve Brawner is a union columnist who focuses on Arkansas politics and whose work appears in 16 Arkansas publications. He is a regular contributor to Talk Business and is a frequent guest on the Arkansas PBS public affairs show, “Arkansas Week”. He publishes a blog, Independentarkansas.com . Email him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.


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