LITTLE ROCK The process of reapportioning the state’s legislative districts has begun, and the three constitutional officers in charge of drawing the districts will hold their first public-comment meeting Tuesday in Jonesboro.
Like congressional districts, legislative districts are redrawn after each decennial census to reflect changes in the state’s population.
The Board of Apportionment - made up of Gov. MikeBeebe, Secretary of State Mark Martin and Attorney General Dustin Mc-Daniel - is responsible for drawing Arkansas’ 100 state House of Representative districts and 35 state Senate districts.
Seven public meetings have been scheduled. The board set a goal to approve a redrawn map of the state’s legislative districts by the end of July. The state will begin using the new map 30 days after it is filed with the secretary of state.
In past years, legislative redistricting has taken until October to complete, but Beebe has said new technology should make it possible to finish sooner this year.
The meeting Tuesday begins at 6 p.m. on the Arkansas State University campus in Jonesboro. Other meetings are planned for Fayetteville, Fort Smith, Helena-West Helena, Hope, Little Rock and Monticello.
The board’s executive director, Joe Woodson, said the intent is to have meetings in enough parts of the state that any resident will be within reach of at least one.
The primary purpose is “to hear what people have to say,” Woodson said. “It’s a listening tour more than anything.”
He said the shape of the districts will evolve over the summer using public input.
“As we go further down the road just by necessity we’ll be getting maps that are more refined and closer to what will actually get adopted” by the board, Woodson said.
Public comment also may be made online at www.ar kansasredistricting.org.
Former state Rep. Timothy Hutchinson of Springdale, who is responsible for drawing maps for the secretary of state, said Martin wants draft maps released before the meetings start so people have something to comment on.
The maps that have been released so far were drawn by Hutchinson or Woodson. The maps may be viewed at the redistricting website.
Beebe said he plans to wait and put out a map after receiving public comments at the meetings.
Some national groups are working to increase the role the public plays in redistricting.
Dr. Michael McDonald is a George Mason University professor who helped create the Public Mapping Project, an online website aimed at “pulling back the curtain on redistricting,” according to a Washington Post opinion piece written by McDonald and Harvard researcher Micah Altman.
McDonald said it is difficult to get people interested in the process.
“It’s usually much after the fact when people realize what’s happened with redistricting,” McDonald said. “That is the real difficulty here: how to capture the imagination of the public.”
He said redistricting is a more powerful part of the political process than a campaign or election because districts can be redrawn to exclude competitors, divide communities and maintain power.
“People generally don’t understand that those choices are at stake, and the representation of their communities,” McDonald said. “They shy away from these important process issues that really do determine a lot about what happens with democracy.”
McDonald said how much the public meetings weigh on the final decision will depend on the panel members themselves.
“If anything, the [board] is designed to concentrate political power rather than distribute it,” McDonald said.
Representatives from the governor’s, secretary of state’s and attorney general’s offices draw the boundaries of House and Senate districts using computer software that can calculate the population and racial mix of each district based on census data.
The final maps are expected to meet certain criteria to hold up if they are challenged in court: have less than 10 percent population variance; not be drawn solely based on race; make all parts connected and compact; avoid splitting political entities like cities; keep similar communities together; maintain the core of existing districts; protect incumbents; and minimize gerrymandering.
Article 8 of the Arkansas Constitution states that each county shall have at least one representative and the remaining members of the House will be equally distributed among the more-populous counties. Two court decisions, Wells v. White (1981) and Yancey v. Faubus (1965), struck down that provision as illegal under the U.S. Constitution.
The state’s 35 Senate districts are to represent as equal an amount of the population as possible.
Under the official 2010 U.S. Census population figures, each of the state Senate seats would represent about 83,312 people, and each of the state House seats would represent about 29,159.
The population in the northwest corner of the state grew substantially over the past decade, while much of the south and Delta areas lost population.
Woodson said this means the northwest will get additional representation while the south will lose some.
Beebe said population will dictate which district people end up in.
“Generally speaking everything from southeast moves northwest. That’s the general trend,” Beebe said.
Court precedent gives the state more leeway in drawing legislative districts than congressional districts, but most states try to stay within a 10 percent range of the goal population in each district, Woodson said.
Based on the goal number of people per district in Arkansas, the range could be 74,981 to 91,643 people per Senate district, and 26,244 to 32,074 people per House district, though Woodson’s proposed range - 79,146 to 87,478 per Senate district and 27,701 to 30,617 per House district - is near 5 percent.
Two U.S. Supreme Court cases have created confusion on how much of a variation the state can have in the population in legislative districts.
In 2004, the court affirmed a lower-court decision in a Georgia case, Cox v. Larios, that there is not a “safe harbor” of 10 percent variance from district to district. Themost-populous districts in Georgia had been drawn with almost 10 percent more people than the least-populous districts.
A few months later, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision to accept Senate districts around New York City that had 10 percent more people than districts in the northern part of the state in Rodriguez v. Pataki.
The panel members have different priorities for which principle is the most important.
Beebe said he wants to minimize the population variance.
“Even though 5 [percent] on either side of a magic line may be legal, my desire is to get more condensed than that,” Beebe said.
Hutchinson said he is aiming for population variance between districts to be as low as possible.
“We think the one-person one-vote is critically important,” he said.
McDaniel said he is more concerned with keeping communities together and giving incumbents a chance of being re-elected.
He said problems setting up the software on computers in his office over the past few months has kept his office from drawing maps.
“It was months after the secretary of state’s office was drawing maps before we could even turn on,” McDaniel said.
The state Republican Party began criticizing Beebe and McDaniel last week for not yet releasing maps, calling it “arrogant disregard for transparency.”
Two of the board members are Democrats (Beebe and McDaniel) and one is Republican (Martin). A 2-1 decision could determine the final result. Several decisions made by the board so far have been along party lines, including whether to hire Woodson as executive director.
This is not the first time the political makeup of the board has been split. In 2001 the board was made up of Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee and two Democrats: Attorney General Mark Pryor and Secretary of State Sharon Priest.
Every redistricting since 1940 has been challenged in court.
In the 1989 Jeffers v. Clinton suit, M.C. Jeffers of Forrest City and others sued the state over the 1981 redistricting map, which included four majority-black House districts and one such Senate district. The U.S. District Court ruled that the state’s map violated the federal Voting Rights Act and ordered an increase in districts where minority groups made up the majority of the population.
After the 1990 Census, the Board of Apportionment kept that same number of majority-black districts. The same plaintiffs again challenged the state map in U.S. District Court, seeking additional majority-black districts. A three judge panel ruled the state’s map was sufficient.
In 2002 a U.S. District judge threw out a lawsuit from the NAACP that challenged the constitutionality of the new legislative districts after the 2000 Census.
McDaniel said he wants to ensure that the plan couldn’t be challenged successfully in court. He said the person drawing maps in his office is an election-law attorney.
“I am very confident it will be legally defensible,” McDaniel said. “There’s a lot of eyes on this plan. I can assure you there will be a lot of people that won’t be happy. But our objective is to ensure that it’s fair and legally defensible.”
Beebe said the board can’t be too worried about being sued over the final map.
“Somebody is always suing, every year for the last 60 or 70 years. What makes you think it’s going to be any different this time?” Beebe said. “If you worry about that you’re probably not going to get your job done. I worry about winning.”