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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Carved up like a turkey

by John Brummett | October 10, 2021 at 2:04 a.m.

Because of one word--"acquired" rather than "passed"--Republican legislators were able to chortle last week about sticking it to Pulaski County three ways.

We'll get to that pivotal single word later. First, let's explore the main story, which, as usual, is the politics of resentment.

Pulaski Countians should have expected as much from the state's reigning right-wing Republicans. This is punishment for being so Democratic. It's the price of containing local circuit judges prone to calling the Republican legislators' laws unconstitutional.

State government is based in Pulaski, so its legal disputes begin there.

Specifically, Pulaski has been zapped in political strength, anemic though it was already.

The new congressional district map produced by the Legislature last week to reflect new census data puts the quietus to the county's habit of inconveniencing French Hill every two years. It's been doing that by delivering big votes to his Democratic opponent and forcing him to work for re-election elsewhere.

The new configuration cuts up the county not into two districts--its long-familiar 2nd and another--but, as literal insult on top of injury, three ways, among the 1st, 2nd and 4th.

Republican legislators didn't have to do it. There was a way to arrange counties in a way that split no counties and attended to the deviation limits on population generally allowed by federal courts.

But, faced with competing Republican interests about shifts around the state because two districts had grown in population and two had lost, Republicans decided to be clever. They chose to attend to everyone's interest except Pulaski's, or nearly everyone's, and then equalize everything by chopping up Pulaski.

One plan was to carve out areas of North Little Rock and northern Pulaski County. But Sen. Jane English is the Republican senator for part of that area and she had a seat on the deciding State Agencies Committee. So, she was permitted to carve up Pulaski differently--to the south of her, excising a section on the eastern edge for the 1st district and a section on the south--largely south of Little Rock's Baseline Road--for the 4th.

Republican legislators thus ended up taking high concentrations of Black and Hispanic voters--who make up more than half the population in those two displaced slivers--and not merely moving them to another district, thus diluting Democrats' strength in Pulaski, but splitting them among two districts, thus diluting non-white voting strength.

It's called "packing and cracking," by which you pack a higher percentage of white folks into the 2nd District for Hill's benefit and crack the non-white bloc into two districts to lessen its strength.

Federal courts have tended to frown on such things. Surely this plan will be sued.

You can never be assured how courts will rule, but there seems to be a fighting chance at least for a preliminary injunction that would force everyone to run one more time by the pre-existing configuration.

Hill might want to hang on for a while longer to that old car that he has used in campaign advertising to show him to be a man of the people.

Now, about that fateful, or fatal, word--acquired.

Last year, lawyer and direct-democracy gadfly David Couch joined with the good-government League of Women Voters for a proposed constitutional amendment taking the decennial jobs of congressional and legislative districting away from the politicians and giving it to an independent commission.

Polls showed the proposal highly favored because, while it has grown stronger in legislative influence, partisanship has become more generally unpopular because of its new level of extremism.

Republicans deplored the proposal because it would deny them the right to draw districts after a century of Democrats getting to do it.

Secretary of State John Thurston, a Republican, balked at certifying the proposal, citing that it was accompanied by an attestation that its signature-gathering canvassers had only "acquired" background checks. A relatively new statute governing the process, perhaps strategically by Republicans, had required canvassers to have "passed" background checks.

Most background checks don't declare anyone passed or failed. They merely report to the paying party on what turns up in a data search.

So, you don't actually pass such a test. You acquire any available data.

Nonetheless, the state Supreme Court ruled that the law's plain language required "passed" tests, not merely "acquired ones," and struck the proposal from the ballot.

Had it been allowed on the ballot, the proposal would have stood a very good chance of passage.

If that had happened, an independent commission applying the new census data to drawing new districts presumably would have dispassionately considered mathematics, compatibility and logic, not the personal interests of French Hill and Jane English or the resentment-based poking of any county, even that big one with all those liberals and judges.

Yes, Gov. Asa Hutchinson could veto this map. But he'd just get overridden. The state's reigning Republicans don't like him any more than they like 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 jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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