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FAYETTEVILLE -- The League of Women Voters of Washington County has waited 53 years for a chance to change the way congressional and legislative districts are drawn in Arkansas.

President Joyce Hale said the large turnout at a two-hour league meeting Thursday night shows it's time to push for independent district mapping.

Petition signatures

In order to get a proposed constitutional amendment on the Nov. 6 general election ballot, supporters must gather more than 84,000 valid signatures on petitions.

Source: Staff report

"They all stayed to the end," Hale said. "It was 100 people representing all ages and backgrounds. They asked good questions."

Congressional districts are drawn by the Legislature at 10-year intervals after each U.S. Census. Legislative districts are drawn by a three-member panel consisting of the governor, the attorney general and the secretary of state.

The practical effect, Hale said Friday, is whichever party in power draws district boundaries to protect its incumbents while splitting any blocs of voters for the minority party.

The league's national chapter made independent district mapping a priority after federal courts overturned partisan district maps in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, Hale said.

She said Thursday night's crowd showed a high interest level.

A petition effort is underway by another group to place an independent commission constitutional amendment on the Nov. 6 general election ballot, but her group has not backed any specific proposal, Hale said.

The Washington County League's records show it began supporting an independent panel to draw district lines in 1965, according to Hale.

"It was one of the things we wanted to do during the civil rights era," she said.

Democrats were politically dominant then, but the white majority suppressed black representation by methods such as multimember legislative districts. Maps were drawn with a few large legislative districts with two or more times as many residents as a regular district. Regular districts would get one state lawmaker per district but multimember districts would get two or more in proportion to their population. These districts tended to have safe majorities of white voters.

"We're a small, local group that doesn't have a lot of attorneys in it," Hale said. "We've been waiting in the wings to do something about this."

Federal courts declared Arkansas' multimember districts unconstitutional before district boundaries were redrawn after the 1990 census.

Constitutional Amendment

David Couch, who championed the 2016 bid to legalize medical marijuana in the state, said he has drafted a constitutional amendment that would establish an independent commission to configure congressional and legislative districts.

Under Couch's proposal, the majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate would appoint four members of a seven-member redistricting commission. Those members would pick three registered independents to fill the remaining seats on the commission.

According to the National Council of State Governments, six states, mostly in the West, rely on an independent commission to draw congressional districts. Eleven states do so for state legislative districts. Arkansas and Ohio use commissions made up of elected officials.

In states where the map-making isn't done independently -- as well as some where it is -- twisting districts and dividing cities have drawn accusations of partisanship, also known as gerrymandering.

"Most of these commissions can't take politics out of [redistricting], and they don't," said Janine Parry, a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. "But they are one step removed."

Pennsylvania lawmakers are appealing a state Supreme Court decision that had Democratic justices toss a Republican-weighted map in the battleground state, before approving their own map. Federal lawsuits over accusations of gerrymandering are ongoing in Wisconsin and Maryland.

Arkansas hasn't been immune to geographical oddities in its political maps. One notorious example was the proposed "Fayetteville finger," a sliver of the south Arkansas 4th Congressional District stretching to include the Northwest university town. The plan was discarded before the final map was approved in 2011.

"That was a terrible example," Hale said of the "finger" proposal. That attempt is something Fayetteville voters remember whenever the subject of redistricting comes up, she said.

Couch described his proposed amendment as "more of a good-government proposal than fixing something that was bad."

"There's always an issue with respect to political partisanship or legislators trying to protect their own," Couch said.

Democrats in the Arkansas Legislature controlled the congressional redistricting process in 2011 and held two of the three seats on the Apportionment Commission that drew state legislative districts.

Republicans now hold strong majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, as well as all the commission seats. Arkansas' district lines will be reconfigured in 2021, after the next Census.

Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson -- who, if re-elected, would hold a seat on the commission in 2021 -- said he opposed the proposal put forward by Couch, a political independent.

"The Democrats have reapportioned based upon the current system for decades," Hutchinson said in a statement. "It would have been nice to hear this idea of an independent commission 20 or 30 years ago. Now that control of the Board of Apportionment has switched, they want to change those rules."

The biggest source of interest in the issue springs from the district maps in gerrymandered states and the computer technology behind them, Hale said.

"It's visual," she said. "You can just look at these maps and tell how districts wind around to make them more partisan. The computer records parties keep on voters allow them to do that in detail. You can look at the results."

Wait and see

Members of both parties said Wednesday they are open to making the process independent.

"I do think there's a need to find a way to avoid political gerrymandering," said Senate Majority Leader Jim Hendren, R-Gravette. Hendren is a nephew of the governor.

Hendren, along with other legislative leaders who were asked about the idea of setting up an independent commission, cautioned they would wait to see the details in Couch's proposal before giving any endorsements. Couch said he submitted a ballot title for his measure Wednesday to Attorney General Leslie Rutledge for approval.

"The truth is, we did it for years, too," said House Minority Leader David Whitaker, D-Fayetteville. "It's time it's stopped."

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1960s congressional districts had to represent close to the same number of people. Arkansas lawmakers drew some urban districts, such as the 2nd, smaller, while the rural 4th has grown across southern and western Arkansas.

The 3rd District in Northwest Arkansas has seen its shape cut into an upside-down "U" as its population grew.

Even without the "finger," anyone can look at the 3rd District map and tell the boundaries pay much more attention to partisan politics than true community interests, Hale said.

The League of Women Voters was created to encourage all eligible residents to vote, Hale said. Gerrymandering to where it's impossible for a candidate from one party or the other to lose, in effect, takes away incentive to vote in a general election, she said.

"One of the worst effects of gerrymandering is not what it does to the party out of power," Hale said. "It's what it does to independents. They really do lose all representation" because the result of the general election is decided by the district map.

A draft of Couch's proposal sets limits for how much the districts can vary in population. It also dictates the districts should be "composed of contiguous territory" and "reasonably compact," while keeping together existing geographic and political boundaries.

"The commission shall minimize the number of divided counties, cities, and census tracts in that order," according to the proposal.

The commission couldn't use data on voters' party affiliations, voting history or previous election results, as well as the home addresses of incumbent legislators. The commission would be required to draw at least three proposed maps dividing up legislative and congressional districts, which would be posted online for comment.

The idea could likely find a receptive audience among Arkansans, Parry predicted.

"I think it's an easy sell because it's punitive toward politicians," she said. "If they can get boots on the ground ... I don't think they should have too much trouble."

NW News on 02/25/2018

Print Headline: Northwest Arkansas group supports independent redistricting

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