Arkansas legislature’s GOP supermajority adopts proposal to split Pulaski County into three congressional districts (Updated)

Arkansas legislature’s GOP supermajority adopts proposal to split Pulaski County into three congressional districts (Updated)

Democratic opponents say “unconstitutional” redistricting measure will dilute local “Black and Brown” vote

BCN Executive Editor Wesley Brown – Oct. 7, 2021 – Arkansas lawmakers today approved legislation headed to the desk of Gov. Asa Hutchinson that would carve up Pulaski and Sabastian counties into three separate congressional seats and potentially water down the strength of the state’s largest Black voting bloc.

During the waning hours of the special session called on Sept. 29, legislators easily adopted two identical bills on opposite ends of the State Capitol that will turn the Second Congressional District on its head by shifting nearly 200,000 eligible voters into the First, Second and Fourth congressional district. In addition, voters in Little Rock and North Little Rock would be split into separate districts.

In Sebastian County, where Fort Smith is the county seat and the state’s second largest city, the proposed map will divide the county between the Third and Fourth congressional districts. Today, only five counties across the state, including Crawford, Jefferson, Newton, Searcy and Sebastian, have voters that are split between Arkansas’ four congressional seats.

During debate on Senate Bill 743 and House Bill 1982, Republican sponsors Sen. Jane English of North Little Rock and Rep. Nelda Speaks of Mountain Home both made the case that tearing up the current boundaries for Arkansas four congressional seats better serves the people of Arkansas due to changing population demographics.

Under federal law, the U.S. Constitution mandates that an apportionment of representatives among all 50 states must be carried out every 10 years and delivered to the sitting president nine months after the decennial census. The extended session to redraw the Arkansas’ congressional lines comes almost three months after the Census Bureau released its first round of population data necessary to begin the redistricting process after several delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Following the release of 2020 Census redistricting data last month, Arkansas total population has grown to 3,011, 524, up 95,606 or 3.3% from the last decennial census. Pulaski County remains the largest of Arkansas 75 counties with 399,125 residents. Under the Constitution’s “one person, one vote” criteria, Arkansas’ four congressional districts must be as nearly equal in population as is practical, which would give each seat about 750,000 people.

“I think it is kind of important to look at how the state has changed over the last 10 years, where it has grown and where it has declined,” English said during the Senate debate. “The reason for redistricting the new maps is to take into account those things. These maps are basically done on population across the state, moving some people here because we didn’t have enough folks over here.”

“I think this is a good map and a lot of people in the Senate and House have worked on,” added English, who formerly headed the state Economic Development Commission under former Gov. Mike Huckabee.

Still, several senators went back and forth concerning the question of whether the redistricting proposal will disenfranchise Black voters in Arkansas by diluting their collective voting power for the purpose of weakening their political influence.

Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Elliott, said the new map for SB 743 intentionally disperses Black voters into three congressional districts to undermine the growing impact of the state’s diverse minority population on the electoral process.

“For us to say we can not get a good map without splitting Pulaski County is patently not true,” said Elliott, who filed an alternative proposal to make the Second District a “minority-majority” congressional seat. “People who are listening and people who are in this body need to be very clear, just as we deliberately … should consider the other criteria, we absolutely can and should consider race as a part of what we are doing. To say things like, ‘I don’t see race and we didn’t consider race’ is against everything that we are allowed to do according to the courts.”

“It is not racist to ask us to think about this,” said Elliott. “The courts have said we can, and we should.”

However, Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Bigelow, countered Elliott’s argument that the intent of the new congressional maps was to hurt Black voters. He noted, while reading aloud 2020 Census redistricting data, that the racial composition of the new maps was comparable to congressional lines drawn by the Democratic majority in 2010.

As co-chair of the joint House and Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committees that oversaw debate on the 33 redistricting bills filed during the special session, Rapert said he was careful to make sure that the new congressional maps were fair and balanced.

“I am going to have to object to some of the words that were spoken as it relates to race. Number one, specifically with staff and (Republican) leadership, we have done our very best to not have any discussion (on race) so we can focus on the parameters we are supposed to look at in redistricting,” said Rapert. “This map is better.”

Following Rapert, Rep. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, protested that splitting Pulaski County into three congressional districts would dilute the Black and Hispanic vote in the Second District, while increasing the white majority with more suburban voters in outlying counties. In addition, he noted that voters in Little Rock and North Little Rock will be split into two separate districts, while Pulaski County is divided into three districts.

Slicing and Dicing

“We are the only confederate state that has not sent a minority to represent us in Congress,” said Tucker. “And not only are we not doing that, we are slicing and dicing the Black and Brown population in Pulaski County into three congressional districts.”

In the House, debate on HB 1982 also centered on the issue of race. Rep. Fred Love, D-Little Rock, said the new Republican-drawn congressional map would dramatically impact African Americans in his district. Citing the large Black and Hispanic population south of 1-630 in Little Rock, Love said that area would now become part of the mostly rural and majority white Fourth District.

“Anyone knows … if there are conversations in regards to race in Little Rock, south of I-630 does mean that race comes into play. For those that don’t know about I-630, (it) was constructed and actually goes straight through the African American business district – destroying in essence the (city’s) only African American business district.

“So, anyone that knows anything about the sensitivity of race, south of I-630 is that line of demarcation. As I said, that doesn’t go to me saying that the intent of this map is (racist), but the impact of it is that it is going to disenfranchise the African American community. Period,” said Love. “I didn’t say that (Rep.) Speaks just because you propose this map, you are a racist. I did not say that. But I want you to go to the intent of this map.”

In the end, both proposals in the House and Senate were approved by the Republican supermajority. The final tally for SB 743 was 22-10 in the Senate and 53-35 in the House. Concerning HB 1982, the House vote was 59-30, while the Senate count was 21-12. Republican lawmakers in both chambers, however, failed to attach an emergency clause to the proposals, which would have allowed the bills to immediately become law.

Instead, both measures were sent Thursday to the desk of Gov. Asa Hutchinson. On Wednesday, during his weekly press briefing at the State Capitol, Hutchinson said he had concerns about diluting minority representation but would not say if he would sign the carbon copy proposals into law.

“I think it is important to note that I don’t think there is anything wrong with dividing a county in order to achieve the right population requirements and the constitutional standard,” said Hutchinson. “What’s important is not whether or not you divide Pulaski County, but how you divide (it) if you make that decision to do so. I would urge (lawmakers) to keep in mind that you do not want to dilute minority representation or influence in congressional races. And that is an important factor I believe should be considered.”

Today, Rep. French Hill of Little Rock represents the Second District, which sent the last Democrat to the U.S. Congress between 2007 to 2011 when Rep. Vic Snyder held the position. Since then, both Elliott and Tucker have lost races against Republican incumbents for the congressional seat that encompasses all of Pulaski County’ nearly 200,000 eligible voters.

In November 2010, Elliott ran and lost against Republican nominee Timothy Griffin after Snyder retired. Griffin served as the Second District congressman from 2011 to 2015 until he returned to Arkansas to serve as lieutenant governor under Hutchinson. Hill, a former banking executive, was then elected to the congressional seat in 2014 and went on to defeat Hill and Elliott in 2018 and 2020, respectively.

Besides the two redistricting bills, the Republican supermajority have also passed a gaggle of COVID-19 related bills in defiance of President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate for employers with more than 100 workers. Hutchinson has stated that he considers those proposals to be unconstitutional because it takes a two-thirds supermajority of the legislature to add additional legislation proposals to the special session agenda.

Updated: Mayor Frank Scott Jr. released the following statement concerning the passage of Senate Bill 743 and House Bill 1982

“I am deeply concerned about the gerrymandering along racial lines happening in our community, which was designed to dilute the voices of the residents of Little Rock. This plan sent to the Governor today for his signature separates the communities south of I-30 from the rest of the city, and those neighborhoods are predominantly Black and Hispanic. It is essential that we respect communities of interest in districting, and there is no more fundamental community of interest than a city like Little Rock. Additionally, it is illogical to split Arkansas’ capital city into two congressional districts. I am hopeful our state’s judicial system will correct this flawed attempt at redrawing the boundaries.

“Likewise, it is paramount that the redrawing of Little Rock’s ward lines be done with public input and with these other guiding principles: staying true to the legal requirements for redistricting (“one person, one vote,” compact and contiguous wards, respect for communities of interest, and the relevant provisions of the Voting Rights Act); developing a process that is transparent so that all of our community feels that this important work has been done fairly; eliminating I-630 as a dividing line in our community with an eye to crossing that barrier for wards through the heart of the City; and to the greatest degree possible, avoiding wards that are overwhelmingly single-race in their composition to enhance unity in our representation process.”

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