Arkansas Democratic Rep. Megan Godfrey announced she won’t be running for reelection after finalized redistricting maps unveiled Monday carved her away from most of her current constituents.
And changes to Godfrey’s district were only one of the many that rankled progressives, citizens’ groups, candidates and voters who were hoping against hope for a fair and nonpartisan redistricting process.
The Arkansas Board of Apportionment, made up of Governor Hutchinson, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and Secretary of State John Thurston (all Republicans), has the authority to redraw state legislative districts every 10 years, based on updated census data. They appointed former state Supreme Court Justice Betty Dickey, also a Republican, to oversee the redrawing process.
The three-member board released their final maps for state House and Senate districts in the Old Supreme Court room at the Capitol Monday. The maps are largely the same as those unveiled in October. Arkansans then had a 30-day public comment period before today’s final vote.
More than 800 public comments came in, and Hutchinson said the board accommodated some of those requests. Mountain Home, which would have been split into two House districts in the first draft of the map, will now be contained in a single district. Screwy lines that hacked up communities in Hot Springs Village, Jonesboro and Fort Smith got redrawn, he said.
Hutchinson acknowledged the majority Hispanic district he clucked about in October required some fixing, since it initially was based on total Hispanic population, rather than those of voting age. He did not address the fact that this district appears to have been drawn specifically to pluck Godfrey out of it. In her two terms in the House, the Spanish-speaking Godfrey has proven to be a powerhouse advocate for the Hispanic population in Northwest Arkansas, leading the successful bipartisan charge to expand professional licenses to DACA recipients (aka Dreamers, those who were brought to the United States illegally when they were children). Godfrey said she had hoped the maps might be reworked to keep Springdale voters, including herself, together. But her house has been drawn into the far southwestern corner of a far more rural and Republican district than what she currently represents. Godfrey quickly posted to social media that she won’t be seeking a seat in that new district, which she said deserves a representative that reflects its values.
“The partisan and divisive map, finalized today, leaves me in a district that stretches up into Benton County,” Godfrey said in a Twitter thread. “That district deserves a different representative who can be a strong advocate for that community and its values, just as I have been a strong advocate for downtown and east Springdale.”
Josh Price, former Pulaski County election commissioner and currently a Democratic candidate for secretary of state, said the current system Arkansas employs to redraw political maps needs a top-to-bottom revamp. When a single party has control over the entire process, there’s no way it can be done fairly, he said. “Even if they’re trying to be as fair as possible, they’ll have implicit bias,” he said.
The Arkansas Public Policy Panel and Arkansas Citizens First Congress, which together organize and mobilize citizens to work toward stronger public safety, education and government accountability, released a joint statement to say that while they’re still reviewing the maps, the redistricting process itself is irredeemably partisan and doesn’t offer enough opportunities for public input.
The Board appears to have made substantive changes in Fort Smith, Springdale and Jonesboro to respond to complaints that these communities were racially gerrymandered. It will take some time to assess the specific demographic changes made by moving these lines. But the Board adopted these changes only minutes after proposing them.
The public had no opportunity to review, assess and comment on the changes. Many Arkansans still have no idea they are divided from their neighbors, and they had no opportunity to provide input to the Board. This is unacceptable for a process so fundamental to our democracy.
People affected by these last-minute changes will have no opportunity to weigh in, Arkansas Public Policy Panel Director Bill Kopsky said in the joint statement.
A few other changes were made, such as the welcome reunification of Mountain Home. It’s critical to point out that hundreds of communities like Mountain Home were needlessly divided for partisan and racial gerrymandering purposes and were not corrected in the final maps adopted by the Board. Why are citizens in other communities that are cracked apart less worthy of reunification than the residents of Mountain Home?
Loriee Evans, a representative for Indivisible Little Rock and Central Arkansas and a longtime advocate for voters’ rights, said she liked the change made in Fort Smith, where the new lines proposed in October would have cracked away a minority community from the city and diluted it in a more rural and conservative district. The revised map fixes that, she said.
“But making an improvement for the minority community of Fort Smith doesn’t reduce the pressure to fix the numerous remaining district lines that still dilute the voting power of other minority communities in Arkansas,” Evans said.
Jacksonville, for example, remains chopped among three House districts. The city’s population is 29,500, seemingly making it an easy one to keep together since all House districts are supposed to include about 30,000 people. But the maps approved Monday “crack” away communities of Black voters and “pack” them into a single House district that hugs the eastern edge of Pulaski County, which also has a largely Black population. The new lines funnel Black voting power into one district to reduce the number of districts in which minority voters have influence.
Indivisible teamed up with Arkansans for a Unified Natural State (AFUNS) to release a statement denouncing the new maps:
Indivisible and AFUNS found that the Board disregarded its own publicly stated criteria, by drawing new districts that divide dozens of Arkansas cities and towns, and by diluting non-white electoral power by splitting communities of interest.
Violating redistricting coordinator Justice Betty Dickey’s promises of transparency, the Board voted today on final maps that were altered from the draft maps — but were not made public until the Board’s vote to approve them. The final maps dilute the voting power of minority communities across Arkansas, by splitting small cities such as Forrest City, West Memphis, Magnolia, Jonesboro, Jacksonville and others. These lines were drawn in a manner that both cracked and packed Black and Hispanic communities, in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act.
“Redistricting is a foundational voting right upon which all other voting rights rest. It is therefore imperative that we get this right,” said redistricting cartographer Kwami Abdul-Bey, founder of Arkansans for a Unified Natural State. “Sadly, Arkansas’s flawed process of having a highly partisan, highly political body that totally lacks any significant diversity to even want to listen to, and understand, the concerns of the hundreds of citizens that spoke out against the first set of maps is, in and of itself, undemocratic. This calls for a constitutional referendum that will create a completely independent, nonpartisan, non-political body to redraw those maps as soon as is practical.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas took issue with what they say is an underrepresentation of communities of color. They sent an alternative map that included 13 majority Black districts and three additional districts that included a majority of Black and people who identified as Black plus one or more other races.
“The ACLU of Arkansas advised the Board of Apportionment that with Arkansas’s current population, we should have 16 majority minority House districts. Yet, the Board approved a House map with, by their count, only 12 majority minority districts,” ACLU of Arkansas Executive Director Holly Dickson said. “Our maps provided just one way the Board could achieve 16 majority minority districts, but instead they approved maps that dilute the voting power of Arkansans who are also racial minorities. We will be requesting and reviewing the adopted maps in detail.”
Dianne Curry, a representative from the Little Rock NAACP, said she was disappointed in the way the capital city is divided in a way that splits up communities and voting precincts, and saw Monday’s maps as an echo of the Congressional redistricting process, which she said also divided Little Rock unnecessarily.
Despite this laundry list of objections, Rutledge said Monday that she felt confident the new maps will stand up in court.
“I am confident, as the state’s lawyer, that these maps meet all the requirements of federal law, including the 14th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Arkansas Constitution,” she said.
Hutchinson hinted that legal challenges to the maps wouldn’t come as a big surprise to him. He acknowledged Arkansas’s redistricting is “not a perfect process,” but said he felt the Board of Apportionment “managed it as well as any state could.”
The new maps, which strengthen the already ironclad Republican stronghold on the state, will no doubt reinvigorate the push for an independent, nonpartisan redistricting process modeled on those in other states. An effort to put the switch to such a system before the voters fell through in 2020 when the Arkansas Supreme Court kicked it off the ballot on an unavoidable technicality.