Gov. Asa Hutchinson asks state Board of Apportionment to meet next week to redraw state legislative districts

Gov. Asa Hutchinson asks state Board of Apportionment to meet next week to redraw state legislative districts

Next week’s meeting is final step of Arkansas’ efforts to redraw local, state and congressional districts in Arkansas

BCN Executive Editor Wesley Brown — Oct. 23, 2021 — The third shoe has dropped on Arkansas efforts to redraw local, state and congressional districts after the 2020 Census data was sent to all 50 states in late August.

On Friday (Oct. 22), Gov. Asa Hutchinson as chairman of the state Board of Apportionment has called a meeting for Oct. 29 at 10:30 a.m., to propose Arkansas House and Senate legislative maps for a public comment period of 30 days. The Board of Apportionment, consisting of the sitting Governor, Secretary of State, and Attorney General, was created in 1936 by Amendment 23 to the Arkansas Constitution.

The board is tasked after every U.S. census with redrawing 100 House & 35 Senate Districts so that each district meets various legal criteria, including each district being about the same size in population. This “redistricting” is required by law once every 10 years after the Federal Census. 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. After the 2010 Census, Arkansas 100 House representatives and 35 senators each served about 29,000 and 83,000 residents, respectively.

Since late August, the Board of Apportionment and its appointees have set out 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.

In advance of the Board of Apportionment hearings, Dickey said her role is to make sure each Arkansas House and Senate seat meets various legal criteria, including each district being about the same size in population.

“The Board’s goal in redistricting area as follows; creating districts that substantially equal in population, geographically contiguous and compact; preserving cores of existing districts and communities of interest; recognizing geographic boundaries; and ensuring redistricting is not based on racial gerrymandering and political partisanship,” said Dickey, the first woman to serve as Arkansas’ state Supreme Court chief justice.

Besides the Board of Apportionment meeting next week, state lawmakers and city officials have already begun the controversial redrawing of congressional and city ward maps locally. Like Republicans will have the advantage in using the new census data to redraw the state’s new legislative districts, the GOP supermajority in the state House and Senate also used advantage to take sole responsibility for redrawing Arkansas’ four congressional seats.

On Sept. 29, the Republican supermajority approved two identical redistricting bills during the recent special session by the state legislature that ended Oct. 13, splitting more than 21,000 Black voters in Pulaski County into three congressional districts.

Because the Arkansas House and Senate failed to attach an emergency clause to make the bills effective immediately, they will not go into effect until 90 days after the legislature adjourns, which is Jan. 14, 2022. That gives several groups, including the City of Little Rock, time to file state and federal lawsuits and gather at least 54,000 signatures to petition Arkansas voters to remove the new law from the books.

After Gov. Asa Hutchinson refused to veto or sign the controversial measures last week, those two unsigned bills became Act 1114 and Act 1116 of 2021 on Oct. 13. Still, Hutchinson said he was concerned that the boundaries of new congressional election maps, especially the division of Pulaski County, will harm minority populations. However, he refused to veto or put his signature on either of the two identical House and Senate, which effectively allowed the controversial measure to become law.

In a press briefing at the State Capitol, Hutchinson explained that the U.S. Constitution gives the Arkansas General Assembly the sole authority and responsibility to formulate the redistricting plan every ten years for Arkansas’ four congressional districts.

“If challenged, the judicial branch, as it has done in past years, will determine the constitutionality of the map,” said Hutchinson, reading from a prepared statement. “I am concerned about the impact of the redistricting plan on minority populations.”

Besides Arkansas, more than a half dozen states have already filed federal lawsuits challenging changes to voting district maps that diminish the political power of minority groups or unfairly gives one political party an edge. Every decade, following the decennial census, states redraw the boundaries of their legislative and congressional districts to adjust for shifts in population, as required by the U.S. and state constitutions. Local governments also use new population data to determine the size, shape and location of voting districts for seats on governing bodies such as county councils and school boards.

Citing the controversial splitting of Pulaski County and the state’s largest black voting bloc into three congressional districts, Mayor Frank Scott Jr. outlined a proposal for the Little Rock City Directors to consider two new maps that realigns the city’s seven wards to manage the city’s decade-long population growth and more diverse demographics.

Mayor Scott said his ideas on how the city should redraw city wards is based on 2020 Census data and federal redistricting law. Under the Little Rock’s Council-Manager form of government each city resident is represented by one of seven directors elected from within a particular ward. In addition, each resident is represented by the sitting mayor and three directors elected at-large who represent the entire city.

Despite Mayor Scott’s recommendation, the 10-person city board approved a measure proposed by Vice Mayor Lance Hines to give City Manager Bruce Moore the responsibility for redrawing the city’s seven ward boundaries. Hines, a frequent critic of Little Rock’s first duly elected Black mayor, said the city manager could get assistance from the public, the city attorney and others as he wishes, but protested leaving the local redistricting task with the mayor’s office.

The mayor’s new map proposal also comes exactly two months after he held a press conference at the Little Rock Hall to introduce new 2020 Census data showing that Little Rock now has 202,591 residents, the first time in state history that an Arkansas city has surpassed the 200K mark. According to Scott, the new count represents an increase of 9,067 new residents in the past 10 years, or a growth rate of 4.69%.

The Census data also show a diversifying city, Mayor Scott said, with a large gain among the population identifying as “two or more races,” up 3,374 to 11,626 or up 244.58%. Those identifying as “white alone” make up 44% of the population, while all other single and multiracial categories comprise 56% of the city’s residents. The Hispanic and Latino population (of any race) grew from 13,076 to 20,285, a growth rate of 55.13%.

To account for those changes, Mayor Scott’s first draft map here proposes that city officials redraw new boundaries in a comparable manner as past redistricting efforts by keeping every director in their current ward with the least amount of change. Like the redrawing of the congressional districts by the legislature, the City of Little Rock must redraw the geographic boundaries from which voters elect city council and school board representatives while accounting for population and demographic shifts from the 2020 Census.

Mayor Scott’s second map proposal, however, offers more dramatic changes to the city’s ward boundaries using what he called “recommended principles of redistricting.” Under this map, the city would reshape the boundaries of six of the seven districts across the city except for the far west Ward 5, which is now represented by Vice Mayor Lance Hines.

“Wards are compact and contiguous, all neighborhoods and communities of interest are kept intact, I-630 is eliminated as a boundary and no longer divides our Wards, each ward closely resembles the makeup of the city, and each ward is closer to our target number of 28,950,” wrote Scott.

In his one-page communique, which included two draft maps and attached spreadsheets with new population and demographic breakout, noted that the maps were not final but only a proposal to set the table for the city’s redistricting efforts.

“This is simply a path to start our conversation about redistricting and look at how we have completed the process in the past compared to how we can improve the process,” said Scott, whose “Rebuild the Rock” sales tax extension plans were rejected by voters in a Sept. 15 special election.

The city’s other “ward” directors include newly appointed Virgil Miller (Ward 1), Ken Richardson (Ward 2), Kathy Webb (Ward 3), Capi Peck (Ward 4), Hines (Ward 5), Doris Wright (Ward 6) and B.J. Wyrick (Ward 7). The city’s at-large directors are Dr. Dean Kumpuris (Position 8), Antwan Phillips (Position 9), and Joan Adcock (Position 10).

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