Proposed constitutional amendment would create citizens panel to draw legislative, congressional districts in Arkansas

Plan calls for independentpanel to draw boundaries

FILE - In this Feb. 1, 2011 file photo, an American and Arkansas flag blow in the wind as snow falls in Fayetteville, Ark.  (AP Photo/Beth Hall, File)
FILE - In this Feb. 1, 2011 file photo, an American and Arkansas flag blow in the wind as snow falls in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Beth Hall, File)

A number of Arkansas organizations and community groups have joined forces to propose a constitutional amendment that would change the state's legislative and congressional redistricting process by creating a Citizens' Redistricting Commission.

The coalition of nonprofit organizations and community groups calling themselves People Not Politicians on Tuesday filed the ballot initiative with the office of Secretary of State John Thurston. People Not Politicians is the name of similar groups in Oregon and Oklahoma.

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

Loriee Evans, spokeswoman for People Not Politicians and lead organizer for Indivisible of Little Rock and Central Arkansas, said the goal is to create an independent commission that would be free of political bias when it draws new boundaries of congressional and legislative districts.

"Right now we have a system that is accountable to lobbyists and politicians, and not the voters who have elected them," she said.

Legislative districts are drawn by the state Board of Apportionment and the Legislature redraws the legislative districts. The districts were redrawn this year based on the population changes noted in the 2020 U.S. census.

If the proposed amendment is approved by voters in the November 2022 general election, the proposed commission would redraw all the district maps in 2023, then resume the regular schedule of creating new maps after each decennial census.

Evans said the commission would be composed of nine members: three Republicans, three Democrats, and three members with other or no political party affiliation. She said the measure also would prohibit participation by current and former political operatives, lobbyists and elected officials.

David Couch, attorney and amendment author, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that the proposed initiative would eliminate the Board of Apportionment.

"The Board of Apportionment was an initiated amendment in and of itself so they can't complain too much because that is how they got invented," he said. "It's just that times have changed since the '30s."

The Arkansas Board of Apportionment's members are Republicans Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and Thurston.

Shealyn Sowers, Hutchinson's spokeswoman, said the governor's office didn't have a comment on the ballot initiative at this time.

Couch said several states already have independent citizen commissions in place and this concept has been in the works since 2018.

"We did a lot of polling and focus groups and this measure is overwhelmingly popular among Republicans and Democrats," he said. "It's just politicians and lobbyists who don't like it."

House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock, said she welcomes the effort.

"I believe it would benefit all of us to have a less partisan process for redistricting no matter what political party is in the majority," she said.

Attempts to contact House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, Tuesday afternoon were unsuccessful.

Kevin Niehaus, spokesman for Thurston's office, said the ballot initiative, titled the "Arkansas Citizens' Redistricting Commission Amendment," will need to collect the required amount of valid signatures of registered voters in order to make the ballot in 2022.

For a constitutional amendment, the petition must contain at least 89,151 valid signatures of registered voters, which is equal to 10% of the votes cast for governor in the 2018 general election.

The petition drive must also have a certain amount of signatures from at least 15 counties. The number of signatures in each of the 15 counties must be equal to at least 5% of the total votes cast in that county in the last governor's race.

The deadline for filing the petitions with the signatures will be July 8, 2022. There are no extensions provided for in law. However, there is a cure period if the initial petition meets certain criteria.

Couch said this proposed amendment is essentially the same initiative the group filed in 2020.

"It was very popular with voters, until it was thrown off the ballot on a technicality," he said.

Couch said that in 2020, when the names of paid canvassers were submitted to the secretary of state's office, the language used with the submission stated that the sponsors had "acquired" a criminal background check on the paid canvassers and not that the paid canvassers had "passed" a criminal background check.

"This was despite the fact that the paid canvassers had in fact passed criminal background checks," he said. "Subsequently in a separate case the Supreme Court held the background check statute that required this language as unconstitutional. However, this came after they had already disqualified the measures."

Evans said more than 100,000 Arkansas voters who signed petitions made it clear in 2020 that they wanted an independent redistricting initiative on their ballots, and they are making sure they get that opportunity to vote for a fair redistricting process.

Evans said the proposed amendment requires that all commission meetings, whether formal or informal, special or regular, will be advertised and open to the public.

Couch said this amendment is a fair solution to both parties, in his mind.

"Politicians should not choose their voters. Voters should choose their politicians. As long as politicians are drawing the maps they are choosing who is voting for them," he said.

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