We finally know what Arkansas’ new legislative districts will look like, so now potential candidates know better whether they should jump in the race or walk away.
On Monday, the Board of Apportionment approved the final district maps for the Arkansas House and Senate. The vote came a month after it released preliminary maps that drew more than 800 comments.
Those maps will determine who can run where in next year’s state legislative elections, which are approaching fast. The filing period for party candidates for the May 24 primary is Feb. 22 to March 1. Running for those offices had best not be a last-minute decision.
The board is composed of the governor, attorney general and secretary of state. Those office holders meet every 10 years following the census to redraw district lines to account for population shifts.
This year’s maps are coming very late, primarily because the COVID-19 pandemic messed up the census, and also there was some politics involved, of course. By comparison, the Board of Apportionment in 2011 approved its maps July 29 that year.
The compressed timeline has left incumbents and potential candidates in somewhat of a waiting game to learn what district they might represent and who their voters might be. Those are important factors in deciding whether to run.
Now we’re seeing a lot of announcements, one way or another. Among the most notable ones came from Rep. Megan Godfrey, D-Springdale, who was drawn out of the heart of her district and announced Monday via Twitter that she won’t run next year.
Godfrey had been a remarkably effective Democrat serving in a House of Representatives that is more than three-fourths Republican. She represents Springdale, which has a high population of Hispanic and Marshallese residents. She’s not Hispanic, but she is bilingual. Among her achievements was sponsoring legislation making illegal immigrants served by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program – the so-called “Dreamers” – eligible to be licensed as nurses.
Board of Apportionment members and their staffs, coordinated by former Supreme Court Chief Justice Bettye Dickey, placed a high priority on creating Arkansas’ first district drawn so that a majority of voting age residents are Latino. The way the lines worked out, Godfrey was left out of that district in the draft maps released a month ago, which didn’t change after the comment period.
Following the 24-minute meeting, which was 18 minutes longer than the one in 2011, I asked Gov. Asa Hutchinson if Godfrey could have been drawn into her old district.
“There might have been a way, but that didn’t get the votes … on the board,” he said.
There are only three people on the board. Asked if he wanted Godfrey to be drawn into that district, he said, “We presented ways that that could have been done, but again, the priority was getting that Latino district up to a voting age majority.”
The board touted the fact that the number of House districts where the majority of residents are minorities increased from 11 under the 2011 maps to 12 now, counting the Latino district.
Still, Hutchinson acknowledged the maps probably will lead to a court case, as has happened following every redistricting since 1940. In a news release, Democratic Party Chairman Grant Tennille said the maps dilute minority votes and that the mapmakers “know they’ll be headed to court.”
It should be noted that the 2011 maps – drawn by Democrats – resulted in a lawsuit by another Democrat, former state Sen. Jack Crumbly, alleging the board intentionally diluted the votes of racial minorities. Crumbly lost the election after the redistricting and lost the lawsuit.
Redistricting processes often are marked by partisanship. This time, Dickey said partisan data wasn’t even loaded into the system, which is believable because it wasn’t necessary. The 2011 maps, even though drawn by Democrats, produced a Legislature that is more than three-fourths Republican.
Back in 2011, Gov. Mike Beebe dismissed complaints about the maps drawn by his and Attorney General Dustin McDaniel’s offices.
As reported by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, he said, “every 10 years you’ve got folks that are happy and folks that are unhappy, depending on how their particular situation ends up. Usually it’s the people either that are in office or running for office that are either the happiest or the unhappiest.”
He said that back when Democrats were in charge of everything. Some things change, and others don’t.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist published in 16 outlets in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.