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Community leaders discuss new Civic Health Index at panel hosted by Clinton Center

LA Johnson

The first civic engagement report in Arkansas history finds Arkansas voters have the lowest turnout rates in the nation.

The Arkansas Civic Health Index is the first civic engagement report in Arkansas. The index is a report on the strengths and weaknesses of Arkansas’ citizen engagement. According to the report, the Natural State comes in last for voter turnout when ranked against all 50 states and Washington D.C. The report used data from the 2020 Presidential election. At a panel held by the Clinton Presidential Center on Monday, leaders in civic engagement discussed the creative ways they have tried to get Arkansans involved in local government. Lisa Hicks Gilbert is the mayor of Elaine, a small town in the Arkansas Delta Region. She ran for the seat in 2022, and said it was difficult to reach young voters at first.

“So we just did old-fashioned grassroots walking, going to the park, meeting them while they were out playing basketball,” Gilbert said. “And that way we gained their trust because we went to where they were.”

Gilbert’s election saw the highest voter turnout in the history of Elaine. She emphasized that she wanted her community to feel involved in their government from the start of the process.

Another panelist was Gayatri Agnew, head of the Walmart Center for Accessibility and Excellence and a city council member in Bentonville. She said local governments need to be serious about inviting their community to participate.

“I want a space that invites residents to feel part of their government.” Agnew said. “There are so many small ways that can happen, and there are so many small ways that doesn’t happen.”

Agnew cited her experience on the Bentonville City Council as an example. When citizens feel like they have a space where they belong, Agnew says, they become more involved in their community and local government.

Maggie Ryan is a reporter and local host of All Things Considered for Little Rock Public Radio.