Today's Paper Latest Coronavirus The Article iPad Core Values Weather Newsletters Obits Puzzles Archive Story ideas

OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: The smallness of spite

by John Brummett | December 28, 2021 at 3:02 a.m.

It's a perfectly fair observation on motivation. But it's not at all a substantive argument on merit.

I refer to scoffing by Republicans about efforts in Arkansas to reform the congressional and state legislative redistricting process. These Republicans are justified in observing that the efforts happen to have sprung up only now as the GOP takes control after more than a century of Democratic control.

It can be true--and is true--that it is transparently partisan that such initiatives are suddenly arising.

It can be true simultaneously that politicians should never have been in charge of drawing their own districts in the first place.

Efforts to remove that power are better late than never; they are appropriate now even though they weren't undertaken decades ago when they could and should have been.

Just because Arkansas Democrats drew their own districts for decades is no reason to concede to what Arkansas Republican legislators did to Pulaski County and its minority population in the recent redrawing of the 2nd Congressional District.

They split it into three congressional districts, acting less, I'm sure, from racism than two other reasons.

One was to make re-election more convenient for U.S. Rep. French Hill. The other was for the hilarious hell of it.

A lot of what is happening in the state on a partisan level currently stems from the smallness of spite.

All of that is to lay the foundation for reporting that a proposed state constitutional amendment you may remember from last year is expected to be filed today with the secretary of state's office by a coalition of nonprofit community advocacy groups calling their cause People Not Politicians.

Prepared by lawyer David Couch of Little Rock, the ballot-issue guru, the proposed amendment would wrest congressional and state redistricting power from legislators, the governor, the attorney general and the secretary of state. It would vest that power in a nine-member citizens committee composed of three Republicans, three Democrats and three others chosen from applicants screened by a panel of retired appellate and circuit judges appointed by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court.

The power would seem to reside in the three "others."

Commissioners couldn't be officeholders or lobbyists or party officials or immediate relatives thereof.

The petitioning groups are Indivisible of Little Rock and Central Arkansas, the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, the Urban League of Arkansas, the Citizens First Congress, Arkansas United, the Arkansas State Conference of the NAACP, the Arkansas Education Association, the League of Women Voters of Pulaski County, and Arkansans for a Unified Natural State.

Couch says this proposal is basically the same one he filed for the 2020 ballot when, if passed, would have applied to the decennial redistricting just completed with such Republican flourish. The supportive groups collected well more than the required signatures only to have the Republican-inclined state Supreme Court toss the issue from the ballot on the most ticky-tack of technicalities.

That basis was that a new state law later struck as unconstitutional required paid canvassers for signatures to have "passed" background checks. The professional canvassers for this amendment and a couple of other ballot initiatives last year had attested they had "acquired" background checks.

Most background checks are simple reports that persons acquire. Reports don't declare passage or failure. They tend to come back saying "nothing found," instead of "congratulations, you passed."

This time, hired canvassers chasing the valid signatures of the 89,151 registered voters in 15 counties will face different restrictions pursuant to a newer law, Act 951 of 2021. They may not be from out-of-state and they may not have committed any of a number of listed crimes.

It will be harder now to collect signatures without trained out-of-state crews for hire. But at least canvasser disqualification will be based on searchable police records of clearly listed offenses rather than word trickery.

Meanwhile, in Washington, Democrats are pushing a voting-rights law they probably can't pass that has a section making it expressly unlawful for states to engage in "gerrymandering" to redraw districts.

Gerrymandering can be in the eye of the beholder, but this provision would allow a judge to consider stark demographic and partisan changes that clearly enhance electoral prospects for one side or the other.

Current case law makes it difficult to allege general gerrymandering absent a clear splitting of minority voters raising racial discrimination issues, such as surely we confront in Pulaski County.

The congressional bill expressly permits--not that they are disallowed now--independent state citizens' commissions instead of politicians for federal districting.

It's not unlawful to do redistricting in a way that seeks to spare sitting state legislators from being put into new districts in which they'd have to run against each other. It's just tacky for those legislators to lean on a governor, attorney general and secretary of state of their party to protect them.

An independent commission could consider incumbent protection but merely as a guideline based on established voter preference, not on partisan self-interest.

It would be better for political self-interest to be considered by an independent citizens' panel divided among Republicans, Democrats and others three ways, which reminds me again how Republicans divided Pulaski County.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

Print Headline: The smallness of spite


Sponsor Content