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BRENDA BLAGG: Redistricting tensions

Process begins slowly, but with much at stake by Brenda Blagg | May 26, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

The Arkansas Board of Apportionment is getting off to a rocky start on its decennial task of redistricting the state Legislature.

The real work cannot begin because U.S. Census data has not yet been delivered to the states.

That data is critical to the process because it locates exactly where the people who were counted in last year's Census live within each state's borders -- right down to street addresses within the cities and counties.

The Census count likely does not include every resident of the state. No count is perfect. The chance for anything approaching a perfect count in the year of covid-19 was nigh to impossible.

And the pandemic caused delay in delivery of the Census data, which isn't expected until Sept. 30.

So far, the only breakdown of Census data released has been a comparison of population among the states, not details within the states.

Arkansas' 2020 population, as of April 1, the official Census Day, was 3,013,757.

That number would divide into 35 state Senate districts, each ideally with a population of 86,107. The 100 House of Representatives districts would each represent 30,138 Arkansans.

That's the theoretical starting point for the Board of Apportionment, which will draw new House and Senate districts that are "as nearly as practicable" equal in population.

Ten years ago, the ideal population within an Arkansas House district was 29,159 while the ideal Arkansas Senate district size was 83,311.

If the redistricting done then is any guide, the districts won't be equal in population, but close enough to avoid litigation.

A lot of factors, including pure politics, play into the eventual decisions of any Board of Apportionment.

Even in this week's first gathering of the current board, there was a hint of political tension.

The board is made up of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who is the chairman, Secretary of State John Thurston and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge.

All are Republicans, as are all the other constitutional officers in this state. Republicans also hold strong majorities in both chambers of the Legislature.

While the relative handful of Democratic lawmakers may also try to influence the board's redistricting decisions, most of the political pressure will arise among Republicans this go-round.

It may have begun on Monday as board members discussed naming a redistricting coordinator, who would serve the board and be responsible for setting up the office, gathering public comments and eventually presenting the final redistricting maps adopted by the board for public reaction.

Hutchinson broached the subject, inviting comment from the other board members.

Rutledge suggested that the board make sure the coordinator is "technologically savvy," noting that her own team working on redistricting has been training with the software for months. Drawing the maps, she said, is quite challenging.

Each of the board members has staff assigned to this task, although the three elected officials will make the final decisions.

Hutchinson and Thurston nodded agreement with Rutledge, then Hutchinson suggested a candidate for the coordinator's job.

Former Chief Justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court Betty Dickey, he said, has the credentials and "the gravitas and the wisdom and judicial temperament that I think would be important."

He proposed having the coordinator on board by July 15.

Hutchinson first said the board should meet again June 24 but later agreed that they should try to meet sooner to decide on a coordinator.

Again, Rutledge emphasized the need for the coordinator to be technologically savvy, offering no additional explanation.

Dickey, 81, was the first woman to be chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court. Gov. Mike Huckabee appointed her in 2003 to fill the unexpired term of retiring Chief Justice W.H. "Dub" Arnold. She served a little more than a year until Chief Justice Jim Hannah was elected to succeed her.

Huckabee then appointed Dickey to the associate justice seat Hannah had held. Dickey served as an associate justice until December 2006.

She had previously been the elected prosecuting attorney for the state's 11th Judicial Circuit (Jefferson and Lincoln counties) and ran unsuccessfully for attorney general in 1998.

In 1999, Huckabee appointed Dickey to the Arkansas Public Service Commission and, in 2003, made Dickey his chief legal counsel.

Fast forward to now, when Rutledge, term-limited as attorney general, is running for governor against Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the daughter of the former governor who appointed Dickey to all those posts.

Could that political dynamic be at play in this decision about hiring a redistricting coordinator? How or to what extent?

Unfortunately, the public may never know. The governor suggested that the Board of Apportionment, whenever it meets again, consider the appointment in an executive session.

Such private meetings are allowed, but not required, under the state's Freedom of Information Act.

Even if the board's deliberations are closed, members must vote publicly to affirm any decision they make in private. They can, however, keep their reasoning to themselves.

That is not a great way to build confidence in the redistricting process, not with so many sensitive, potentially political decisions on the path ahead of this board and its staff.

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