Arkansas Ballot Proposal Could Overhaul District-Drawing Process
On a gray afternoon, Nick Wiench walks to the University of Central Arkansas's Torreyson Library. He studies philosophy and film, not political science, but he's concerned about an easily-overlooked part of the electoral system.
"I know gerrymandering is the thing where they split up basically the districts almost by Republican and Democrat to try and get the most votes into their own political party. It's kind of biased, in a way… but I'm not sure exactly how we can fix it," Wiench said. "It's not exactly a smooth thing that we can do."
But now, two almost identical proposals are seeking to change the way Arkansas draws both its congressional and state legislative districts.
Every ten years, the state of Arkansas revises its voting districts as area populations rise or fall. Now, a popular ballot item aims to change who controls that redistricting.
The task of redrawing state legislative lines in Arkansas falls on the Board of Apportionment; composed of the Governor, Secretary of State, and Attorney General, with the state legislature redrawing congressional districts. In Arkansas, that means districts will be drawn by just one party—the Republican Party.
Skip Cook wants to change that process. Cook is no stranger to popular referendums; doing away with partisan elections for judges and imposing term limits on lawmakers, for instance. His new proposed constitutional amendment shifts both legislative and Congressional district-drawing power to a seven-member independent commission.
A spokesperson for Arkansas Secretary of State Mark Martin said he did not have a comment regarding the proposal, but Cook sees it as giving the public a say in drawing the same districts they vote in.
"There are all kinds of movements like this taking place across the country, I think because citizens see a need for it to be in a more neutral territory and more directly related to citizens. And I think that’s what this amendment would do," Cook said.
The commission would have seven members. The House and Senate leaders from both parties would each pick a member, for a total of four. Those members would then pick three more commissioners who cannot have a party affiliation.
Cook's proposal is similar to another effort to change the redistricting process, proposed by Little Rock lawyer David Couch. A version of Couch's amendment was eventually approved by Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, but he plans to re-submit the proposal to start gathering signatures for the 2020 elections.
"It’s just good government. I mean, if we're going to clean up government in Arkansas and across the country and get more and more people involved in it, everybody needs to feel like they have an equal shot and equal participation and the deck is not stacked against them," Couch said.
The aim of either proposal is to make redistricting independent of parties. But, in this case, is independence truly realistic?
Heather Yates is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Central Arkansas.
"The word 'independent' can be a little misleading, because it's not independent as in nonpartisan, it's independent of the state legislature and it's independent of the constitutional officers. So, it's this separate body of deciders, if you will," Yates said.
Yates argues the factors taken into account when redrawing district lines is just as, if not more important, than who is actually doing the redrawing.
“That’s where other political criteria come into play. Do they use voter turnout data? Do they use other political communities of interest data? If they are, then that’s where the party in power is going to draw a district that benefits them, that makes them more competitive over the opposition party.”
Yates says, unless partisan gerrymandering is expressly prohibited, Arkansas voters can only expect real change to come on one condition.
“The commission will be effective only if they use different criteria. If they use different criteria then that may impact the shape of the districts. But if this is just removing the process away from the constitutional officers and putting a different body in charge that still has the partisan interest represented, it’s hard to know if that would substantially change the districts.”
As of now, Arkansas places no restrictions on using political data when redrawing district lines, and Yates says the Supreme Court will only take up the issue of partisan gerrymandering if challenged by a state.
In the meantime, both Cook and Couch plan on collecting signatures for their respective amendments to be placed on the 2022 ballot.
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among public media organizations. Arkansas Public Media reporting is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK and from members of the public. You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.