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 congressional map drawn this month by the Arkansas Legislature.
Under the U.S. Constitution, states must redraw their congressional districts every 10 years in response to population changes determined by the census. This ensures each district contains roughly the same population – about 750,000 in Arkansas.
This normally happens in the spring, but the census numbers were late arriving this year, so lawmakers recessed then and returned September 29.
They created more than 30 maps. Nothing got traction. Everyone was looking out for their own districts’ interests, as they should. It was hard to make the numbers add up. The Republican-led Legislature was working off a 2011 map that was drawn by Democrats who were losing power and hoping in vain to save a seat. Meanwhile, the session became embroiled in debates over COVID vaccine mandates.
Lawmakers finally settled on a bill sponsored by Rep. Nelda Speaks, R-Mountain Home, and Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock. It splits up Pulaski County, the state’s largest, into three congressional districts: the 1st, 2nd and 4th. Currently, the county is entirely contained in the 2nd, which covers central Arkansas. Part of Little Rock will go into the 4th District and part of North Little Rock into the 1st.
Only one other county was split – Sebastian, the state’s second largest and home of Fort Smith. It is one of five counties split in the last redistricting 10 years ago, and its representatives were not happy to see it happen again. They would prefer to deal with one congressman who is focused on their county’s needs.
Sebastian County has a legitimate gripe but not a legal course of action. The Pulaski County situation, however, will result in litigation. The new maps remove 21,000 Black voters from the 2nd District and spread them around the 1st and 4th.
Diluting the minority vote potentially creates a civil rights issue. Meanwhile, legislators brought Cleburne County, which is almost entirely white and isn’t really part of central Arkansas, into the 2nd.
African Americans vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. The 2nd District has been the only one where Democrats have been halfway competitive in congressional races. In 2020, state Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, a Willisville native and Southern Arkansas University graduate who is African American, ran a strong campaign against U.S. Rep. French Hill. Hill still won, 55.4% to 44.6%, which is not really that close.
Was it lawmakers’ intention to engage in race-based discrimination? Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, the chair of the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee that first heard the redistricting bills, said legislative leaders and staff tried their best not to make race part of the discussion. He said he would have objected to any effort to draw lines based on race.
Still, you can bet there will be a lawsuit. Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who as an attorney represented the NAACP in a 1990 redistricting case, expressed concerns about the new map’s effect on minority populations and declined to sign the bill into law. He didn’t veto it knowing legislators would override him, so it will become law without his signature.
Now the courts will decide. Based on case law, the plaintiffs must prove lawmakers intentionally engaged in racial discrimination. Intentions are hard to prove.
Meanwhile, legislators legally can act with partisan motivations. If they want, they can argue they were trying to move Democrats, not African Americans, out of the 2nd District. They can also argue that they were just trying to make the numbers add up.
The thing is, this wasn’t necessary. Elliott said in the Senate that 11 of the maps filed by lawmakers didn’t split any counties, much less 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 lawmakers did and why they did it. Again, intentions are hard to prove.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist who focuses on Arkansas politics, and whose work appears in 16 Arkansas publications. He is a regular contributor to Talk Business and a frequent panelist on Arkansas PBS’s public affairs show, “Arkansas Week." He publishes a blog, independentarkansas.com . Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner .