Publicly and privately, state lawmakers – who are charged with redrawing Congressional District lines – are outlining the high-stakes risks and rewards that could influence Arkansas’ federal elections for the next decade.
A delay in getting precinct-level data into a state mapping system has lengthened a process that many thought would be heavily debated by now. The major shift in party power among Arkansas’ federal delegation is also a new factor in the redistricting process. And, loyalties among Democratic and Republican legislative members will also highlight the forthcoming epic debate.
The software to absorb the U.S. Census data did not work as planned, and nearly two weeks ago, House and Senate leaders on the State Agencies Committees said they wouldn’t be able to move forward with Congressional redistricting until it was resolved.
The delay prohibited high-tech tinkering with maps, which will allow lawmakers to drag and draw lines to aggregate voters by entering key characteristics, such as ethnicity, gender, age, etc. Most importantly, their voting history – which primary and general elections they’ve voted in – will be a much-scrutinized set of data points.
For weeks, it has been clear that with the changes needed to balance Arkansas’ four Congressional Districts and the fact that technological mapping advances have become more sophisticated, there would be split counties for the first time. Legal battles during the last decade around the country underscore the need for split counties in order to come as close to "one person, one vote" as possible.
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 Districts need to lose a respective 15,000 and 110,000, according to estimates.
As early as next week, the data may be able to be manipulated and the process can begin with greater accuracy.
A NEW ORDER
Republicans will be seeking to protect their new gains in Congress. Now holding three of four seats, the GOP wants to redraw lines that could keep – or enhance – their majority for a long time.
Third District Rep. Steve Womack has the safest seat, while GOP newcomers Reps. Tim Griffin and Rick Crawford will be looking for protection. The Democrats only have Cong. Mike Ross’ Fourth District to protect and they’ll be looking for ways to stem losses they incurred in November.
Conventional wisdom suggests that with where the population shifts must occur, Republican voters from the Second and Third are likely to move into the First and Fourth. In theory, the Third stays safely Republican, and the First and Fourth could become more GOP-leaning. The Second District, which has been prone to swings, could change very little in its political reconstruction.
A key component of Congressional redistricting, which has not and may not receive any press attention, is the Republican and Democratic performances of each district. Party performance is a carefully-calculated statistical exercise deployed by national and state partisans who average the voter turnout in every precinct in every district over a period of time.
In Presidential election years versus non-Presidential years, partisan performance of districts can change. Political operatives from both parties will extensively research these performance numbers and scenarios to determine how different redistricting scenarios could influence a seat’s Democratic or Republican performance.
With this in mind, one can see how shifting Sebastian County to the Fourth District could alter that district’s balance of power. Boone County to the First District tilts that district further in Rick Crawford’s GOP favor.
Conversely, Democrats could concoct a map that pulls Democratic voters out of the Third and into the First or even Fourth district (yes, it is possible).
Constructing the new districts this year will be much different than a decade ago. One legislative leader intimately involved in the 2001 redistricting process said that with supermajorities of Democrats in the statehouse and a Democratic delegation in Washington, the process was a cinch.
"We just asked the Congressmen what they wanted to do. About 4 days later, we got an envelope with a map in it and a note that said, ‘This is what we want.’ Done deal," said the now-retired lawmaker.
For Republicans, holding and building on their 2010 victories is imperative, but the group that will redraw the lines – the 88th General Assembly – has a Democratic majority in both chambers. While the work will be done through both chambers’ State Agencies Committee, there is still plenty of room for partisan maneuvering.
The House State Agencies Committee has a majority of Democrats on it and the full House is still a majority Democratic chamber.
In the Senate, the split on State Agencies is 4 to 4; however, the State Senate has a rule that allows a bill to be pulled out of committee and onto the Senate floor for debate if there are a majority of Senators in support. As 18 Senators would be needed to make the move, the Senate Democrats’ majority of 20 could allow this to happen.
There are three potential ways that the redistricting debate could break and two are seriously in play at this juncture.
1) You could see a near-straight party line vote on redistricting if the Democrats decide to muscle a plan to their advantage through. Despite cries of partisanship, if the tables were turned, you can bet your bottom dollar that the GOP would build a plan in their favor and keep their rank-and-file in order. The Democrats may do the same.
2) Republicans are flirting with members of the legislative Black Caucus – all Democrats – by assuring them that a "majority-minority" Congressional seat could be formed. One seat built to elect an African-American Democrat would assure that the remaining three seats are safe for Republicans for the next decade.
GOP strategists argue that it can be built, but Democrats – including new party chairman Will Bond – say it’s "a factual impossibility." According to most Democratic estimates, 41% is the highest African-American population that could be built into a single district.
Southern states that have seen huge Republican gains in the last decade have used the GOP-Black Caucus alliance effectively to gain Congressional advantages, but minority populations are much larger in states like Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama.
3) A third scenario that seems to be the fallback position if the other two prospects get too radioactive is the "path of least resistance" approach. New Congressional Districts under this effort would involve disrupting existing lines as little as possible in hopes of pleasing all involved.
Regardless of the outcome, there are sure to be fireworks and it will likely be the most politically charged debate of the session. Arkansas’ Congressional Districts have changed dramatically during the last 70 years, but not so much in the last 20 years as we’ve previously reported. It appears that the 2011 realignment will be one for the ages.