Arkansas legislature prepares for special session to redraw state’s four congressional districts

Arkansas legislature prepares for special session to redraw state’s four congressional districts

BCN Staff – Sept. 27, 2021 — The Arkansas General Assembly is expected to convene at the State Capitol on Wednesday (Sept. 29) in preparation for a special session to redraw the state’s four congressional seats with new population data from the 2020 Census.

Last week, the House and Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committees kicked off meetings to begin hearing proposals to redraw Arkansas congressional lines. Although the committees can take no action during these meetings, Senate President Pro Tempore Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana and Arkansas House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, told members they will likely be called back into an extended session of the 93rd General Assembly this week to see if changes to boundary lines are needed.

The extended session to redraw the state’s congressional lines comes almost two months after the Census Bureau released its first round of population data necessary to begin the redistricting process after several months of delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. Constitution mandates that an apportionment of representatives among the states must be carried out every 10 years and delivered to the sitting president nine months after the count begins.

Earlier in February, James Whitehorne, chief of the Census Bureau’s redistricting and voting rights data office housed within the U.S. Department of Commerce, apologized that the critical redistricting totals had not been delivered to all 50 states as expected at the beginning of the year.

“If this were a typical decade, we would be on the verge of delivering the first round of redistricting data from the 2020 Census. Our original plan was to deliver the data in state groupings starting Feb. 18, 2021, and finishing by March 31, 2021,” Whitehorne said nearly a month after President Joe Biden took office. “However, COVID-19 delayed census operations significantly. Consistent with previous census, we are focusing first on our constitutional obligation to deliver the state population counts for apportionment to the President. 

On April 26, U.S. Commerce Department Secretary Gina Raimondo finally delivered the decennial population count totals to President Biden that are used for apportioning the seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. That data showed the resident population of the U.S. on April 1 was 331,449,281, up 7.4% from a decade ago.

“Our work doesn’t stop here,” added acting Census Bureau Director Jarmin. “Now that the apportionment counts are delivered, we will begin the additional activities needed to create and deliver the redistricting data that were previously delayed due to COVID-19.”

After Arkansas and other states belatedly received the first round of apportionment data in August, a second round of the same easier-to-read population data was delivered to all 50 states last week as stated by Jarmin. That Sept. 16 data dump included an easy-to-use toolkit of DVDs and flash drives with integrated browsing software to use in redrawing their congressional and state legislative district boundaries.

Topics in both formats include 2020 Census population counts by race, Hispanic origin, voting age and housing unit data for counties, places, census tracts and blocks. Data users can also now access redistricting data with demographic information for cities and towns without downloading the original File Transfer Protocol or FTP.

Nationwide, all 50 states are beginning the process to redraw all 435 congressional seats but some stand to lose more than others. For example, Census Bureau apportionment data shows that Democratic-leaning California will lose one seat in Congress, while GOP strongholds like Florida and Texas will pick up one and two seats, respectively.

In Arkansas, the Republican Party’s domination of state politics is expected to continue with the Republican supermajority in the state House and Senate leading the debate on the redistricting process at the State Capitol. Today, Republicans hold a monopoly of all four congressional seats, every state elected office, and a supermajority in the state House and Senate.

After the 2010 Census, Arkansas 100 House representatives and 35 senators each served about 29,000 and 83,000 residents, respectively. The Board of Apportionment will have to figure out how to equally divide districts from the state’s resident population from the 2020 Census on April 1 of 3,011,524, an increase of 3.3% or 95,606 persons since 2010. Under the 2020 population totals, each of the 100 legislators in the Arkansas House would represent more than 30,000 people, while state senators would advocate for nearly 87,000 constituents.

Concerning the redrawing of the new congressional maps in Arkansas, at least seven bills have been presented to the House and Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committees for consideration. Last week, details and maps for House Bills 1959, 1960, 1961 gave the bicameral legislative panel the first chance to debate several proposals.

For example, under HB 1959 by Rep. Nelda Speaks, R-Mountain Home, the 2nd Congressional District now held by U.S. House Rep. French, R-Little Rock, would be composed of Conway, Faulkner, Perry, Pulaski, Saline, and White counties. Spears’ new congressional map would remove Van Buren County into the Fourth District, now held by Congressman Bruce Westerman, R-Arkadelphia.

Other notable changes by the Mountain Home lawmaker would add Boone and Marion counties to the sprawling First District represented by Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, while removing Newton County. Spears plans would also add Lincoln, Newton, Pope counties to the mostly rural Fourth district with Van Buren County.

In the fast-growing Third District — home to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and Fortune 500 companies Walmart, Tyson Food, J.B. Hunt — Pope, Boone and Marion counties would move from the district held by Rep. Steve Womack, R-Bentonville, since 2011. That would leave the far Northwest Arkansas district with only five counties, including Benton, Washington, Sebastian Crawford and Carroll.

On the other hand, Senate Bill 728 by Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, would dramatically reconfigure the Second District to create the state’s first congressional district with a majority Black electorate. The district that includes Little Rock and Pulaski County is now represented by Congressman French Hill of Little Rock. However, Elliott’s proposal would remove Conway, Faulkner, Perry, Saline, White and Van Buren counties, which all have majority white populations.

To make for that population loss, Delta-leaning Arkansas, Ashley, Bradley, Calhoun, Chicot, Cleveland, Crittenden, Dallas, Desha, Drew, Jefferson, Lee, Lincoln, Monroe, Ouachita, and Phillips counties would be joined with Pulaski County to give Arkansas’ Black population for influence in future congressional races. In 2020, Sen. Elliott lost her race against Rep. Hill to be the first Black representative from Arkansas in Congress.

Board of Apportionment work

Meanwhile, Republicans will also have the advantage in using the new census data to redraw the state’s new legislative districts. Under state law, the state Board of Apportionment that oversees the state-level redistricting process that has three members chosen by the sitting governor, the attorney general and the secretary of state.

In May, Gov. Hutchinson, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and Secretary of State John Thurston – all Republicans – called their first meeting in anticipation of receiving 2020 U.S. Census redistricting data. Since then, former Supreme Court Justice Betty Dickey, appointed by Hutchinson, has held eight redistricting hearings across the state from July 29 to Aug. 24 to get input from Arkansas citizens on redrawing the state’s legislative districts.

A spokesman for the governor’s office said it is too early to announce a date when the Apportionment Board will release the state’s new legislative district map.

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