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Appeal filed in dismissal of Arkansas redistricting case

Arkansas PBS
Arkansas Secretary of State John Thurston, Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge confer before the start of a meeting on Nov. 29, 2021 in which new legislative maps were approved.

A decision by a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit challenging Arkansas’ new districts in the state House of Representatives is being appealed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Arkansas State Conference NAACP and the Arkansas Public Policy challenged the new map arguing it dilutes the power of Black voters. The map was approved by the state Board of Apportionment, which is made up of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and Secretary of State John Thurston, all Republicans.

The lawsuit claimed the new House map violates the Voting Rights Act, a 1965 law banning racially discriminatory voting practices. The redistricting plan included 11 majority-Black districts out of 100 House seats. Black residents make up 16.5% of the state's population. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit argue that having 16 majority-Black districts would better reflect Arkansas’ racial demographics.

U.S. District Judge Lee Rudofsky tossed out the case on Tuesday saying private parties like the NAACP do not have the right to challenge districts using the Voting Rights Act. Last week he gave the U.S. Department of Justice five days to become a plaintiff, but federal officials declined to get involved.

ACLU of Arkansas Legal Director Gary Sullivan called the move “unprecedented.” He said in an interview that the decision does not reflect precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court and that no federal court has made a similar ruling in the lifespan of the Voting Rights Act.

Sullivan suggested the ruling will give state legislatures the power to create “basically any kind of map they wanted to,” keeping black voters from electing their preferred candidates.

“Then Black voters who realize what is going on are discouraged because they feel like their votes don't count,” Sullivan said.

It could take up to a year before a federal appeals court hears arguments in the case, he said. That means it would not have any impact on the upcoming November elections. All 135 seats in the state House and Senate are up for grabs.

The redistricting process takes place every 10 years based on the population count from the U.S. Census.

Josie Lenora is a news anchor and reporter for UA Little Rock Public Radio. She grew up listening to KUAR and NPR News and says she is thrilled to give back to an organization she loves. Josie first interned in the fall of 2021 assisting in production for KUAR and KLRE, then in spring of 2022 spent a semester interning as a new anchor before joining the staff.
Daniel Breen is a Little Rock-based reporter, anchor and producer for KUAR.