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Maps that dictate which voters get grouped together in districts -- and potentially which parties or incumbents get a boost when the ballots are counted -- have in some states become the subject of recent court battles and accusations of politics usurping cartography.

Not so much in Arkansas, where legislative and congressional maps were last drawn in 2011 and have been debated little since.

That's until a perennial sponsor of ballot initiatives announced this week that he wants Arkansas voters this fall to reconsider changing how the districts are drawn.

David Couch -- who championed the 2016 bid to legalize medical marijuana -- said he has drafted a constitutional amendment that would set up an independent commission to draw the lines for Arkansas' legislative and congressional districts.

[INTERACTIVE MAP: See how state’s districts have evolved over time]

Like the majority of states, the Arkansas Constitution gives politicians the responsibility of redrawing districts every 10 years, after the U.S. census.

The state's congressional districts are drawn by the Legislature, subject to a gubernatorial veto. The state Board of Apportionment, which includes the governor, secretary of state and attorney general, draws the districts for the state House and Senate.

Under Couch's proposal, the majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate would together appoint four members of a seven-member redistricting commission. Those appointed members would in turn pick three registered independents to fill the remaining seats on the commission, which would handle the map-making process.

According to the National Council of State Governments, six states, mostly in the West, rely on an independent commission to draw congressional districts. Eleven states do so for state legislative districts. Both Arkansas and Ohio use commissions made up of elected officials.

In states where the map-making isn't done independently -- as well as some where it is -- twisting districts and divided cities have drawn accusations of partisanship, also known as gerrymandering.

"Most of these commissions can't take politics out of [redistricting], and they don't," said Janine Parry, a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. "But they are one step removed."

In Pennsylvania, lawmakers are in the midst of appealing a state Supreme Court decision that saw Democratic justices toss a Republican-weighted map in the battleground state, before approving their own map. Federal lawsuits over accusations of gerrymandering are also ongoing in Wisconsin and Maryland.

Arkansas has not been immune to geographical oddities in its political maps. One notorious example was the proposed "Fayetteville finger," a sliver of the south Arkansas 4th Congressional District stretching to include the Northwest college town, that ended up being discarded before the final map was approved in 2011.

Couch described his proposed amendment as "more of a good-government proposal than fixing something that was bad."

"There's always an issue with respect to political partisanship or legislators trying to protect their own," Couch said.

Democrats in the Legislature controlled the congressional redistricting process in 2011, and held two of the three seats on the Apportionment Commission that drew the state legislative districts.

Republicans now hold strong majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, as well as all the commission seats. Arkansas' district lines will be reconfigured again in 2021, after the next census.

Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson -- who, if re-elected, would hold a seat on the commission in 2021 -- said he opposed the proposal put forward by Couch, a political independent.

"The Democrats have reapportioned based upon the current system for decades," Hutchinson said in a statement. "It would have been nice to hear this idea of an independent commission 20 or 30 years ago. Now that control of the Board of Apportionment has switched, they want to change those rules."

Still members of both parties said Wednesday that they were open to making the process independent.

"I do think there's a need to find a way to avoid political gerrymandering," said Senate Majority Leader Jim Hendren, R-Gravette. Hendren is a nephew of the governor.

Hendren, along with other legislative leaders who were asked about the idea of setting up an independent commission, cautioned that they would wait to see the details in Couch's proposal before giving any endorsements. Couch said he submitted on Wednesday a ballot title for his measure to Attorney General Leslie Rutledge for approval. Rutledge, a Republican, declined to comment.

"The truth is, we did it for years, too," said House Minority Leader David Whitaker, D-Fayetteville. "It's time it's stopped."

In the 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that congressional districts had to represent close to the same number of people, causing lawmakers to draw some urban districts, such as the 2nd, smaller, while the rural 4th has grown across southern and western Arkansas. The 3rd District in Northwest Arkansas has seen its shape cut into an upside-down "U" as its population grew.

A draft of Couch's proposal sets limits for how much the districts can vary in population. It also dictates that the districts should be "composed of contiguous territory" and "reasonably compact," while keeping together existing geographic and political boundaries.

"The Commission shall minimize the number of divided counties, cities, and census tracts in that order," the proposal states.

When drawing the maps, the commission could not use data on voters' party affiliations, voting history or previous election results, as well as the home addresses of incumbent legislators. The commission would be required to draw at least three proposed maps dividing up legislative and congressional districts, which would be posted online for comment.

Couch, an attorney, said he expected little difficulty in getting the wording for his proposed measure approved by the attorney general. He said he planned to raise money from "good government groups" to fund a signature-gathering campaign.

In order to get the amendment on the Nov. 6 general election ballot, Couch and his supporters would have to collect more than 84,000 valid signatures.

The idea could likely find a receptive audience among Arkansans, Parry, the political scientist, predicted.

"I think it's an easy sell because it's punitive toward politicians," Parry said. "If they can get boots on the ground ... I don't think they should have too much trouble."

Metro on 02/23/2018

Print Headline: Vote-districting changes pitched

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  • RBear
    February 23, 2018 at 4:09 a.m.

    This has proven to be a good thing to help avoid gerrymandering by overzealous legislatures. In states where independent commissions have drawn maps, parity has been achieved and districts have been drawn that more accurately reflect the voters of the district. While Arkansas has not seen gerrymandering like other states, that is primarily because the urban centers are not as pronounced as in other states. But that could change.
    What typically happens with states with large urban centers is that Republicans will attempt to crack and pack districts to either move all the Democrats into a single district or dilute a district by including large swaths of rural areas. Texas has been a prime example of that, with Travis County divided into a collection of districts with tentacles jutting into Austin. There is no single district that represents Austin's core, demonstrating the effect of partisan redistricting.
    If we truly want to move towards more cooperative government, it's time to end extreme partisanship in redistricting and a commission like this is a great start.

  • amyepattonsbcglobalnet
    February 23, 2018 at 10:01 a.m.

    Yes, Mr. Hutchinson, it would have been nice to have seen a proposal such as this 20-30 years ago, but just because it wasn’t doesn’t mean it’s not worth consideration and debate today.
    Let’s learn from history to make a better tomorrow.

  • 3WorldState1
    February 23, 2018 at 10:17 a.m.

    Hear hear!

  • workerman
    February 23, 2018 at 12:24 p.m.

    Why would congressional districting not be a political and/ or partisan process? It’s part of congressional elections which are political by definition. There could never be such a thing as an ‘independent’ committee. These days even the dog catcher runs on a platform for gun rights or socialized healthcare.

    Couch should just call it what it is, an attempt to give now out of power Democrats a process to have more influence since they have lost their majority support in the state.