The Arkansas House and Senate passed redistricting bills that would divide the state's most populous county between three congressional districts on Wednesday, a week after coming back into session.
Senate Bill 743 by Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, and House Bill 1982 by Rep. Nelda Speaks, R-Mountain Home, are identical bills that redraw the lines for the state's U.S. representatives based on population data from the 2020 U.S. census.
Lawmakers reconvened last week after taking an extended recess while waiting to receive census data from the federal government; Wednesday marked the 116th day of the 2021 regular legislative session.
After the bills were approved in their originating chambers, the House and Senate Committees on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs endorsed the opposite chamber's bills. Lawmakers are expected to vote on both when the chambers convene this morning, the final hurdle before the bills can be sent to the governor.
The proposed map splits Pulaski County, which has been entirely in the 2nd District since the 1960s, between the 1st Congressional District, the 2nd Congressional District and the 4th Congressional District. The cities of Little Rock, the state's largest city and capital, and North Little Rock would also be divided between two congressional districts.
Five counties are currently split between congressional districts: Crawford, Jefferson, Newton, Searcy and Sebastian. Sebastian County stays split in the proposed map, between the 3rd Congressional District and the 4th Congressional District.Gallery: General Assembly Extended Session
The new map would also add Madison County to the 3rd Congressional District and put Crawford County entirely in that district as well. It would place Boone and Marion counties in the 1st Congressional District and Newton and Pope counties in the 4th Congressional District, condensing the currently horseshoe-shaped 3rd Congressional District.
Cleburne County would be added to the 2nd Congressional District, and Jefferson County would be wholly in the 4th Congressional District.
The 2020 U.S. census showed that Central Arkansas' 2nd Congressional District and Northwest Arkansas' 3rd Congressional District gained population, while the 1st Congressional District covering mainly eastern Arkansas and the 4th Congressional District covering southwest Arkansas lost population.
The Natural State's population grew to 3,011,524 people over the past decade, making 752,881 the ideal population for each congressperson to represent.
Proponents of SB743 and HB1982 touted how close the populations of each district would be under the bills to the ideal population, while Democratic lawmakers objected to the bills putting majority-minority areas of Pulaski County in separate congressional districts from the rest of the county.
English said she thought it was important to look at how the state has changed over the past 10 years and where the population has grown or declined.
"These maps are basically simply done on population across the state, moving some people here because we didn't have enough folks over here. Sometimes we have too many people over here, so we have to change it to over here," she said. "All of the districts meet the deviation, every one of them is on target."
She said many lawmakers in the Senate and House worked on it.
Speaks said she believed HB1982 would "stand the challenge if necessary."
"It's been scrutinized more than any bill since I've been down here," she said.
BLACK VOTE CHARGES
Lawmakers who spoke against the proposed map said it was possible to draw a map with low population deviation without splitting counties and that it would eliminate the possibility of Arkansas electing a Black person to Congress.
"That desire and that hope is being squashed here today by the map that you are presenting for our consideration," Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, said, after pointing out that her constituents voted overwhelmingly for her colleague, Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, who ran unsuccessfully against the 2nd Congressional District's incumbent, U.S. Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., in 2020. Chesterfield represents southeast Pulaski County.
Elliott said lawmakers should "absolutely" take the racial makeup of different areas into account along with the other criteria they look at when redistricting.
"To say things like 'I don't see race' or 'I don't consider race' is against everything that we are allowed to do according to the courts," Elliott said. "We're not supposed to pack these districts and we're not supposed to crack these districts when it comes to minority groups."
Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, took issue with Elliott's statements about race and said there was no effort to dilute the minority vote.
"We have done our very best to not have any discussion so we can focus on the parameters that we're supposed to look at," Rapert said. "People are going to get heated, people are going to make claims but there has been no effort whatsoever, senator. I would object if there were."
He said SB743 creates a better map than what Arkansas has currently, which was drawn by a Democrat-controlled legislature 10 years ago and splits five counties instead of two.
"I think the map looks a whole lot better today with what this committee has given us, it's not all crossed up and gerrymandered like it was in 2011," he said. "Could we make it perfect? No, but I'm tired of hearing some of the allegations thrown at members on all this stuff. They did the best they could and they got it down to two instead of five, so be happy."
Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, said separating the majority-minority parts of Pulaski County into different districts harms them in terms of congressional representation because they are isolated from the rest of the county and from the vast majority of the congressional district they will be in.
"I have no idea if litigation is going to be filed but my guess is that it will. And the fact that we're splitting Pulaski County three ways is going to be exhibit one," he said.
Two Senate Republicans, Sen. Mat Pitsch, R-Fort Smith, and Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Ferndale, also spoke against SB743, objecting to their counties being split.
"I think it's important that we keep counties together. Counties matter. Pulaski County matters as a county, not just a bunch of people or some Democrats over here and some Republicans over here and this is a Black area and this is a white area. I don't think that's as relevant as [that] it's Pulaski County," Johnson said.
The Senate bill initially failed on a 16-8 vote, with 11 legislators not voting. The vote was expunged, allowing English to bring the bill back hours later for it to pass on a 23-10 vote.
The bill was first voted down amid procedural wrangling over passage of an emergency clause on a separate bill dealing with employer-mandated coronavirus vaccinations.
Rapert, who chairs the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs, said it was "the time in the session where members have nothing left but procedural motions to try to obtain their policy." Asked whether SB743's initial failure was tied to the coronavirus-related bill, he said, "It's all interrelated at this point.
"We're going to have maps at the end of this at some point. We're nearing it but we still have a little ways to go," he said.
Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, said emotions can run high and "sometimes when you're in a session like that, what you got to do is just stop and back away from it and kind of do a little thinking."
In the House, many said the bill harms Black communities in Little Rock.
"We all know what this map is doing. Pulaski County votes Democratic and has a large Black population, particularly in the southern and eastern areas," Rep. Andrew Collins, D-Little Rock, said. "We are putting these parts of Pulaski County in different congressional districts and, in doing so, we are weakening and diluting Democrats' voice in electing a representative and we are weakening and diluting Black Arkansans' voice in electing a representative. The map is likely illegal. It's personally offensive to me and many others and it is sad."
Rep. Aaron Pilkington, R-Knoxville, said lawmakers could have made the maps "redder" but didn't.
"This map is actually bluer than the average of most districts when you look at the 2nd Congressional District. We could've actually gone way harsher if we wanted to," Pilkington said. "But I'm going to be voting for this because I'm representing my people in the River Valley who like this and like being concentrated."
Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, said while the map was not perfect, splitting Pulaski County was necessary. He said Jefferson County, a majority-minority county, was split 10 years ago.
"So, I think we can just tone it down on some of the performative theatrics here and the moral outrage that's been dialed up about splitting a county," Ray said. "The idea that this is, quote, 'a gerrymander' is laughable."
Ray said the issue of race is "continually injected" into the discussion and legislators are called racist.
Rep. Monte Hodges, D-Blytheville, said he was going to talk about race because "racism is a reality."
"I'm not trying to win an Academy Award by being up here, so there are no theatrics here," Hodges said. "This is about lives. This is about people. This is about doing the right thing."
Rep. Jim Wooten, R-Beebe, said there is no better representation than a map that is within 0.05% of the ideal population and he was "sorry to see race introduced in this body."
"We're a great state and the point of race should not, in my opinion, be a factor in this. I love Black people just as much as I love white people," Wooten said. "I will do anything I can to help them in any way possible. But just because of the race being thrown in here, it's not right and it's unnecessary."
HB1982 passed the House 59-30.
Neither bill garnered enough votes to pass an emergency clause, which requires a two-thirds majority in both chambers: 24 votes in the 35-member Senate and 67 votes in the 100-member House.
Hickey said the emergency clause was unimportant for the redistricting bills and it was put there out of an abundance of caution. Bills without an emergency clause go into effect 90 days after the end of the session.
He also said he believed the map would hold up under judicial scrutiny.
"It's been vetted, vetted around. I think we've been doing this process for even before the session," he said. "Yes, it's a different map, but I think the process has been fair."
Asked about redistricting at his weekly news conference, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he didn't think there was anything wrong with dividing a county to achieve the right population requirements and meet constitutional standards.
"What is important is not whether or not you divide Pulaski County, but in how do you divide Pulaski County if you make that decision to do so," Hutchinson said. "I have urged them to keep in mind that you don't want to dilute minority representation or influence in congressional races and that is an important factor, I believe, that should be considered."
Asked whether the bills passed that test, he said what he had seen so far caused him some concern. He said he hadn't looked at the demographic details for how those districts would end up, but that he had heard about some of the comments from Central Arkansas lawmakers and wanted to look more closely.
Information for this article was contributed by Michael R. Wickline of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.