Congressional redistricting looks to soon accelerate in the Arkansas legislature for a couple of reasons, and in the process, a number of interesting developments will unfold.
First, U.S. Census Bureau statistics detailing local level census data is expected to be delivered to state officials as early as Feb. 11 instead of Feb. 22 as previously reported.
The calendar change means that Arkansas lawmakers, who will redraw Congressional boundaries, could have the specifics they need to finalize maps by the end of next week.
Of course, preliminary data has given some clear direction as to possible scenarios, but the precinct level information coming next week will allow legislators to define where counties are likely to be split in order to meet a mandate that Congressional Districts are as equally distributed among voters as possible.
Members of the legislative State Agencies Committees have learned that ideal Congressional District sizes would entail 731,557 residents in each of the four districts. Arkansas’ First and Fourth Districts need to gain about 50,000 and 75,000 voters respectively. The Second and Third need to lose a respective 15,000 and 110,000, according to early numbers.
In a recent interview, Senate State Agencies Vice-chair Gilbert Baker, R-Conway, outlined a few scenarios that would boost Republican advantages in Congress.
The Democratic Black Caucus at the state legislature is eyeing a possible "majority-minority" Congressional District, which would entail eastern Pulaski County, Jefferson County, parts of the Southeast Arkansas Delta climbing up to Crittenden County in the West Memphis region. Arkansas is the only southern state to not have African-American representation in Congress since the days of Reconstruction.
Interestingly, Republicans could unite with African-American lawmakers on this plan as it would solidify the remaining three districts for continued Republican gains as Democrats have to have black voter support to compete in other areas of the state.
The Democrats are drawing up their own plans, too, which involve taking full advantage of the fact that counties will be split for the first time in state history – they will have to be to meet federal requirements. Arkansas, Iowa and West Virginia are the only three states to not have split counties in Congressional Districts. Democrats could carve strong Democratic precinct clusters out of key areas – even Republican-leaning counties – and move them into those districts for protection.
Of course, all of these scenarios have to find a majority of legislative support, and with close partisan margins in both chambers of the statehouse, this dynamic will make for fascinating political theater. It is why a GOP-Black Caucus alliance could work, for instance.
Another reason that lawmakers will take action quickly on the data is it will allow them to finish the Congressional District business and move to analyzing new House and Senate district lines.
Those maps will be drawn by the state Board of Apportionment – made up of the Governor, Attorney General and Secretary of State. Democrats hold a 2-to-1 margin with board decisions in this arrangement.
If the General Assembly can quickly dispatch with Congressional boundaries and move to legislative lines during the session, then GOP state lawmakers can maintain leverage in negotiations with Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe on key budget and tax cut issues.
If the process is delayed until after the session, then House and Senate leaders have one less weapon in their arsenal and will find the Governor with a political advantage in redrawing their district lines.
UALR’s Institute for Economic Advancement has been keeping maps of Arkansas’ Congressional Districts since the 1940’s. Did you know that Arkansas had 7 Congressional Representatives back then? It has dwindled to 4 today. Watch this video below to see how the boundaries in Arkansas’ Congressional Districts have evolved during the past 70 years.