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BRENDA BLAGG — Between the lines

Numbers set stage for drawing state’s political boundaries by Brenda Blagg | May 5, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

With the recent release of U.S. Census population data, the scramble to redistrict the state is on.

About all this first set of figures tells us is how Arkansas compares with other states in terms of its population and that this state will again get four U.S. representatives, as has been the case since the 1960 Census.

Redistricting will again shift the boundary lines for those four congressional districts, as those responsible for making the changes try to divide the state into districts that are as nearly equal in population as is practicable.

The chore falls to the Arkansas Legislature, which is in recess now and will resume its regular session when all the Census numbers are in.

Yet to come are the breakdowns of population within the states, which will eventually be reported down to the size of tiny "enumeration districts" within each county and city that can be sorted to gain a few constituents here or lose a few there.

The exercise lets map-makers massage congressional district boundaries with the overall aim of hitting that equal population split among the four districts.

It allows, too, for gerrymandering, which frequently happens.

Gerrymandering is the manipulation of political boundaries to achieve a goal, such as favoring one party or class of people. Arkansas -- with its all-Republican congressional delegation, all-Republican state constitutional officials and Republican-dominated Legislature -- can predictably be expected to draw boundaries favorable to Republicans.

Sometimes an incumbent congressman who prefers to keep specific areas in his district is behind the proposals. At other times, it is constituents, representing themselves or local business, that see an advantage to being in the same district with a neighboring community or county.

They may be driven by factors other than party allegiance, but someone, it seems, is always hovering over the map-makers' shoulders as the process proceeds.

Ten years ago, redistricting resulted in a strange-looking upside-down "U" shape for the state's 3rd Congressional District in Northwest Arkansas. Growth over the previous decade required that it be shrunk in size.

More urban areas of the district remained as several rural counties were carved out to reduce the district's footprint. The state even split some counties into two different congressional districts to make the numbers work, which had not previously been done.

The overall numbers the Legislature will be working with this year are a statewide population of 3,013,757, which would ideally split into congressional districts of 753,439 constituents each.

Estimates on the 3rd District's population gain this year suggest about 76,000 constituents on the fringes of the district will have to be shifted to adjacent districts.

By contrast, the 4th District already spans more ground than any of the other districts but is likely to grow even larger. It now spreads across most of south Arkansas and reaches northward along the state's western border into that carved-out pocket of Northwest Arkansas and may perhaps pick up the constituents the 3rd District must shed.

The state's next-largest district is the 1st District, which spans the eastern side of the state and stretches across the north to meet the 3rd District boundary.

The most compact of all districts is District 2, which includes Pulaski County and six adjacent counties in central Arkansas. It, too, may have to shrink as a result of population growth.

The actual Census breakdowns within states are due by Sept. 30. Until then, everyone is working off projections on population changes within the state.

The Legislature expects to resume its session in the fall, when those numbers are available. Oversight responsibility will fall to the House and Senate Committees on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs.

The breakdown numbers will also fuel activity for legislative redistricting, which is done by the governor, secretary of state and attorney general, acting as the state Board of Apportionment.

You can bet state lawmakers will be among those closely watching and trying to influence how their own districts will be impacted as the maps are under development.

Eventually, the board will reset the 35 state Senate and 100 state House of Representatives districts to reflect population shifts. Some growing parts of Arkansas will likely gain representation while those with declining population may lose some seats in the Legislature.

County quorum courts, city councils or city boards, school districts and community college boards must similarly undergo redistricting, which is done at the local level.

The pandemic delayed this year's Census. All of these redistricting chores have necessarily been delayed as well, compressing the time available to do the work.

The work still must be done in time for prospective 2022 candidates at all levels -- and their potential constituencies -- to know what districts they would represent, if elected.

Redistricting is hugely important to the democratic process. It needs to be watched closely not just by those seeking office but also by the rest of us.

The goal is one person, one vote. Public oversight is insurance that redistricting is fairly done.

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