Redistricting in Arkansas
By Josh Curtis, AAC Government Affairs Director
Gerrymandering — what does this word really mean and where did it come from? You hear both political parties using this word at the beginning of each decade. Gerrymandering means to manipulate the boundaries of an electoral constituency to create a result to favor one party or class. Early in the 19th century, Gov. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts drew a new voting district that favored his party. The district was shaped like a salamander. This district map was published in the Boston Weekly Messenger with the title The Gerry-Mander. Hence the word Gerrymandering.
Every 10 years at the turn of the decade officials are required to redistrict all district lines for elected officials to provide equal representation for every citizen. These officials include all four congressional seats, 35 state senate seats, 100 seats in the state House of Representatives, and countless justice of the peace and city council districts.
Amendment 55, Section 2 of the Arkansas Constitution states the county’s election commission “shall, after each decennial census, divide the county into convenient and single member districts so the Quorum Court shall be based upon the inhabitants of the county with each member representing, as nearly as practicable, an equal number thereof.” Arkansas Code § 7-4-102 outlines that the membership of the county board of election commissioners shall consist of two members elected by the county committee of the majority party; and one member elected by the county committee of the minority party. According to Arkansas Code § 7-1-101 (18), “majority party” means “that political party in the State of Arkansas whose candidates were elected to a majority of the constitutional offices of this state in the last preceding general election.” There are seven constitutional offices in Arkansas, so if the Republicans hold only three of those offices, as they did after the 2010 general election, then the Democrats are the majority party. The Republicans now, of course, hold all seven of the state’s constitutional offices. Therefore each county election commission has two Republicans and one Democrat that draws new district lines for their counties.
Article 8, Section 1 of the Arkansas Constitution created “The Board of Apportionment,” consisting of the Governor (who shall be Chairman), the Secretary of State and the Attorney General. This board’s duty is to draw 100 state house districts and 35 senate districts following each federal census. Arkansas Code § 7-2-101 through § 7-2-105 is where you will find the composition of all four congressional districts. These districts are amended by the general assembly after each federal census, as well.
Arkansas is known as a mixed method state, using the Board of Apportionment to draw the legislative lines and the state legislature to draw the congressional lines. There are three other mixed states — Missouri, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Seven states have a board like that of Arkansas, but drawing both congressional and legislative lines. Thirty-six states have the state legislature drawing all the lines. Only four states have an Independent Commission as the redistricting authority. These states are California, Arizona, Colorado, and Michigan.
This article was supposed to be all about ballot Issue 4, “The Arkansas Citizens’ Redistricting Commission Amendment.” The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled 6-1 in late August that Issue 4 and Issue 5 did not qualify for the ballot because sponsors failed to certify that paid canvassers passed required background checks. Sponsors using the word “acquired” when submitting information about canvasser background checks to the state led to tens of thousands of voter signatures being tossed and Issue 4 and Issue 5 being struck from the ballot. This issue will come back up in some sort of fashion in the future, so I will go ahead and let you see what both sides said about this proposed constitutional amendment.
Republican Party of Arkansas Chairman Doyle Webb said, “This proposal is another out-of-state billionaire-funded attempt to mislead Arkansas voters. Currently the Governor, Attorney General, and Secretary of State draw the legislative districts in the state, and the 135 legislators draw our congressional districts. Those three constitutional officers and the 135 legislators are accountable to every Arkansas voter. Neither the constitutional officers nor the legislators are responsible for drawing their own districts. The Democratic Party of Arkansas has always, every single time for nearly 100 years, been responsible for drawing legislative districts. Now they have lost their majority control and they want to change the rules. There is no such thing as a true, independent appointee. Everyone has political leanings and it is best to side with transparency. We need to keep the process in place, a process that is accountable.”
Bonnie Miller, chair of Arkansas Voters First and president of the League of Women Voters of Washington County had a differing opinion.
“For too long, Arkansas politicians and special interests have used secret backroom deals to manipulate political districts to protect their interests by drawing districts to benefit them, not voters,” she said. “It’s a clear conflict of interest, and it’s time to stop the practice of politicians picking their voters, and let voters pick their politicians. The Arkansas Voters First amendment creates a nine-member independent Citizens’ Redistricting Commission. Commission members, who cannot have served as a politician or lobbyist for the last five years, will hold public hearings broadcast on TV or online. It will have three Republicans, three Democrats and three independent members, creating a fair, transparent, citizen-driven process for drawing new legislative and congressional districts.”
Redistricting will not change before the next general assembly; the process will remain the same as it has for over 150 years. You will hear politicians and pundits use the word gerrymandering a lot if their side doesn’t agree with the new districts.
— Research by AAC Law Clerk Dorothy Spector