A proposed amendment to the Arkansas Constitution was filed with the secretary of state’s office Thursday (March 5) that would create a nine-member commission to draw congressional and state legislative lines following each U.S. Census.
If passed by voters in November, the commission would be composed of three members of the party with the most representatives in the General Assembly, three members of the party with the second most representatives, and three members of another party or no party.
The Arkansas Citizens’ Redistricting Commission Amendment effort is being led by attorney David Couch, who successfully led citizens’ initiatives to increase the state minimum wage and legalize marijuana for medical use.
Couch said internal polling has shown support for the amendment is in the high-60s. He said the rationale is, “Voters should pick their politicians, and politicians should not pick their voters.”
He said the amendment is needed to prevent gerrymandering where elected officials draw lines to benefit their parties and incumbents.
“They all cut deals for Senator A and Senator B. Let’s draw this line where they don’t have to run against each other, or let’s draw this line because Jim Bob over here wants to run for Senate and he needs to run in this district and not that one,” he said.
Currently, congressional lines are drawn by legislators, and legislative lines are drawn by a Board of Apportionment composed of the governor, attorney general and secretary of state.
Couch said a firm has been hired to begin collecting the voter signatures required for ballot qualification next week. The group would need 89,151 valid voter signatures by July 3rd to qualify for the November ballot.
The effort has financial support that will be revealed when it files its campaign finance report, he said. The League of Women Voters will be among its supporters and a public face. Consultant Brett Kincaid will direct the campaign and will have a campaign staff.
The amendment has been prepared with help from the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice and the University of Southern California Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy.
If passed by voters, the amendment would require congressional and state legislative district maps to be approved by six or more votes, including at least two affirmative votes from each of the two largest parties and the other group. The commission would create three alternate maps for both state and federal districts that, statewide, could not favor or disfavor a political party.
The amendment says district maps would be based on the following criteria in descending importance “(t)o the extent practicable”: contiguousness; not denying the right to vote based on race or language; avoiding dividing counties and cities; being reasonably compact; and promoting competition among political parties.
The amendment states that congressional districts would be nearly the same size, while state House and Senate districts could not vary in population more than 3% from the state’s population divided by the number of seats in the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The redistricting after the 2020 census will be the first one done after Republicans have taken control of state politics after a century and a half of Democratic dominance. Asked why he is now trying to change the process, Couch said awareness of gerrymandering has increased in recent years and that he would do the same if Democrats were still in power.
“People that say that are going to assume that in 2030 that the Republicans are still going to be in charge,” he said. “It could be the Democrats that are going to be in charge then. So it’s policy. It’s nothing to do with favoring one party over another party. It’s just the right thing to do.
“I’m not saying they did, but if the Democrats cheated and the Republicans’ response is, ‘Well, y’all cheated so many times, it’s our time to cheat,’ that’s just not a very good argument.”
If voters pass the amendment in November, the secretary of state would advertise openings on the commission and develop an application form in which applicants would affirm their eligibility to serve and their partisan affiliation under penalty of perjury.
No later than Jan. 1, 2021, the Arkansas Supreme Court chief justice would designate a three-person panel to screen applicants while considering geographic, racial and gender diversity. The panel would be composed of retired Supreme Court justices, retired Court of Appeals judges, and, if necessary, retired circuit court judges.
The panel would select 30 applicants each from the most-represented and second most-represented political parties in the General Assembly, along with 30 from another party or who are independents. Within 10 days, the governor and the majority and minority leaders in the House and Senate could eliminate up to two applicants from each pool. The panel would then randomly draw three applicants from each pool for membership on the commission, ensuring at least one commissioner comes from each of the state’s four congressional districts if qualified applicants are available.
The Commission would certify districts no later than Nov. 1 after each federal census. Commissioners would be selected no later than May 1. They would serve until a new commission is convened following the next federal census.
No one could serve on the commission if in the last five years they have been an elected or appointed official; been a registered lobbyist; been a political party officer; been employed by a registered lobbyist, political party political campaign committee or political action committee; or was by blood or marriage the spouse, child, parent or sibling of the aforementioned groups.
During their tenure and for three years afterwards, no commissioner could hold elected or appointed office in the legislative or executive branch or register as a lobbyist.
Commissioners would be reimbursed for expenses and receive payments of $200 per diem, or for each day’s work, which the General Assembly could increase. The General Assembly would appropriate at least $750,000 for each Commission’s tenure.