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The year 2020 may be one of lost opportunity when it comes to a significant reform effort.

The reform has to do with the way boundaries are drawn for congressional and legislative districts in Arkansas, a task that comes around every 10 years following each decennial census.

A ballot initiative being circulated this year proposes moving that responsibility to a nonpartisan redistricting commission.

The spread of covid-19 and resulting state directives to keep people distant from each other, however, have effectively made it impossible to gather the signatures necessary to get that proposal on the 2020 ballot.

And time is running out.

The deadline for submitting petitions to put a proposed constitutional amendment on the Nov. 3 ballot is less than two months away.

While other ballot proposals might be tried again in as little as two years, this particular proposal must be offered -- and adopted -- this year if it is to have any immediate effect. Otherwise, the proposed reform can't happen until after the 2030 U.S. Census.

Here's how the redistricting process works now:

The U.S. Census is supposed to locate everyone living in this country, count them and report out population shifts within the nation, individual states and localities.

The numbers get crunched down to tiny enumeration districts that are aligned to make up the different political jurisdictions.

The work is done, in the case of congressional districts, first by the U.S. Congress, which decides how the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives will be divided among the states.

Each state gets two U.S. senators -- never more and never less -- but the number of House members allotted to a state can change if population shifts enough.

Who decides where the lines will be, which counties or parts of counties will go into each?

That task falls to the state Legislature, which is subjected to heavy lobbying from different interests, each with their own ideas about how the lines ought to be drawn.

It is a highly politicized process, as is the reapportionment of the state Legislature.

An altogether different group decides how the districts get drawn for the 100 state House of Representatives seats and the 35 Arkansas Senate seats.

That chore falls to the state Board of Apportionment, which is made up of the governor, secretary of state and attorney general.

Those three elected officials, all of whom happen to be Republicans right now, make the final decisions, although each will likely assign a stand-in to craft the maps.

Again, the process is highly politicized as incumbents, wannabe lawmakers and other interests try to get the different districts drawn to their personal or party advantage.

The result of these politicized processes can be, and often is, the gerrymandering of districts. They meet the population requirements, or come close enough to providing equal representation, but wander in strange directions to amass the required numbers.

The underlying objective may be to avoid or to include particular neighborhoods or areas where residents have shown a tendency to vote a certain way, to exclude minorities or claim some specific economic end -- whatever the perceived advantage might be to those lobbying for particular boundaries.

The proposal offered this year to reform the process, or at least make it less partisan, comes from Arkansas Voters First, a non-profit organization led by Bonnie Miller of Fayetteville.

The proposed constitutional amendment would create an independent, nonpartisan commission to draw both the legislative and congressional district lines.

Rather, it might have done so, if the petitioners could gather enough signatures to get it to the ballot and if voters would approve the measure.

Neither may happen.

Late last month, Arkansas Voters First filed suit in U.S. District Court in a last-ditch try to get the time extended to collect signatures.

The lawsuit also asks the court to ease other canvassing requirements and to allow submission of electronic signatures, rather than the in-person kind now required.

The litigation may not salvage the effort. The reform is still worth pursuing, even if this particular proposal never makes the ballot and another can't apply until 2030 no matter when it's passed.

Commentary on 05/06/2020

Print Headline: A difficult time to ask

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