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story.lead_photo.caption The Arkansas Capitol is shown in this 2015 file photo. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

Northwest Arkansas lawmakers have no formal say in the redrawing of legislative district boundaries but they say that will be a top-of-mind issue for all legislators when they convene in session Jan. 11.

"The region will again add seats -- at least a Senate seat and a couple of House seats -- further expanding its political power," Sen. Greg Leding of Fayetteville predicted.

Legislators play no direct role in redrawing their district boundaries, but are consulted by the people who make those maps. Authority for redrawing the lines rests with the state Board of Apportionment, made up of the governor, the attorney general and the secretary of state.

The Legislature as a whole will set the boundaries of the state's four congressional districts.

Past federal court rulings require that each state district -- 100 in the House, 35 in the Senate -- be as close to equal in the population represented as possible. An exception was made in 1991 redistricting in Arkansas when a federal court allowed some leeway to make up for past discrimination. Multi-member districts, where voters in one district vote for more than one representative, are not allowed. Each district must be contiguous.

Plenty of other issues will take priority, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Thursday in response to Leding.

"I am confident that supporting our fight against the coronavirus will be front and center in the minds of legislators during the next session," he said. "It is way too early to even think about redistricting since the census numbers are not in yet. Fairness and equal representation should be the goal of the redistricting process."

The process of redrawing district lines takes most of the year after each U.S. Census, far after the end of the regular legislative session. But individual lawmakers and state political parties will have the redrawing of the maps on their minds and attempt to influence results, Leding said.

The census takes place every 10 years.

Leding expects Republican lawmakers and allies to press Board of Apportionment members to draw districts to strengthen their party's representation to the disadvantage of Democrats. All three members of the apportionment board are Republicans.

Four of the 24 Democrats heading for the 100-member state House this year live in Washington County. Leding is one of the seven returning Democrats in the 35-member Senate.

"It's probably easier to knock out a few of them up here than down in Little Rock," Leding said. "So, if Republicans are serious about trying to knock Democrats down to single-digits, I'd look for them to try up here."

The Republican Party of Arkansas has no region targeted, said spokesman Seth Mays.

"We have a 75-county approach," he said, referring to the total number of counties in the state. "This past election, a Republican candidate came within 300 votes of an incumbent representative in Blytheville."

Mays added that Republicans will be well-served if the Democratic Party of Arkansas continues to focus on Little Rock and portions of Northwest Arkansas as if the rest of the state does not exist.

"I would be remiss to omit that Republicans have not drawn state legislative or congressional lines since Reconstruction," Mays added.

Two of the Democrats' three legislative gains in the past two elections -- the first years in which they gained any seats since 2012 -- were in Northwest Arkansas, Leding said.

"Given the region's growth, many believe the Democratic Party's path back to relevance runs through here," he said.

Northwest Arkansas has gained representation in the past two census counts. Northwest Arkansas continues to be the fastest-growing region of the state, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Meanwhile, rural areas across the state continue to lose population, census figures show, particularly in the eastern and southern portions.

The 2011 redistricting led to a lot of debate in public hearings in Northwest Arkansas. The one in 2001 included the threat of a lawsuit.

Northwest Arkansas was shorted representation in the 1991 redistribution because a federal court ruled that Black Arkansans, particularly in eastern Arkansas, had suffered severe under-representation. Those areas were allowed to receive more than their share one time to redress the balance.

In 2001, Northwest Arkansas community leaders retained former state Rep. David Matthews as an attorney to let the apportionment board know the region would either get an equitable distribution or assert its rights in court.

Matthews said recently that he is sure Northwest Arkansas will get its fair share again this time.

"No Republican elected official wants to get the Republican Party of Benton County mad at him or Washington County either," Matthews said.

These are two of the state's most populous counties, and Benton County has a very high turnout in Republican primaries, he said.

As for whether the apportionment board will draw the lines to favor Republican candidates, Matthews, who is a Democrat, said fair representation is a bigger issue. Even for Democrats, "a Republican representative is better than no representative at all," he said.

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This is the first in a series of stories on issues raised by local lawmakers as the next legislative session approaches. The session convenes Jan. 11.

Doug Thompson can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWADoug

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