Two proposed constitutional amendments that would change Arkansas elections were submitted to the secretary of state July 6, and, naturally, it didn’t take long for the party that’s been winning those elections to try to block them.
Both would have to be approved by the voters in November. One initiative by a group calling itself Arkansas Voters First would create a commission of three Republicans, three Democrats and three others who would redraw congressional and state legislative lines after each census. Congressional lines now are drawn by the state Legislature, while state legislative lines are drawn by the governor, attorney general and secretary of state. All of those are controlled by Republicans after a century and a half of being controlled by Democrats.
The proposal’s purpose is to prevent gerrymandering, where politicians from the majority party draw districts using squiggly lines to benefit themselves. Gerrymandering has existed almost since the country’s founding, but modern technology has made it a science.
The other proposal by Open Primaries Arkansas would change elections in two ways. First, every candidate would be on the primary ballot, and the top four would advance. In the current system, the two parties hold separate primaries and the winners face each other in the general election.
In November, voters would rank those top four candidates rather than selecting one. If no candidate wins a majority, then the last-place candidate’s votes go to those voters’ second-choice candidates. That process continues until one candidate has a majority.
This kind of system would make voters more comfortable voting for an independent or third party candidate, instead of feeling they must vote for the “lesser of two evils” lest the greater evil win. They could vote for the candidate they really like as their first choice and then vote for the lesser evil second.
Both efforts involve some of the same people in Arkansas. The signature-collecting process was funded by a Texas-based foundation that supports redistricting reform, the Action Now Initiative.
The proposals ran into immediate opposition from the state Republican Party, which finally started winning elections about a decade ago and will have a chance to redraw districts for the first time since the Civil War ended.
After the two groups each submitted about 100,000 signatures July 6, Arkansans for Transparency, a group with Republican connections, announced it was forming to oppose both efforts.
Then last week, Secretary of State John Thurston announced he would disqualify all the signatures for both because the collectors had “acquired” criminal background checks instead of “passing” them.
Is there a difference between “acquiring” and “passing”? The groups have filed suit to get on the ballot. These things always end up in court anyway.
State Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb told Talk Business & Politics in its Sunday broadcast that his party would be challenging both efforts before the State Board of Election Commissioners. On that same appearance, the state Democratic Party chairman, Michael John Gray, was more supportive of the proposals. Six of the seven commissioners – Thurston is one of them – are Republicans.
On Wednesday, those commissioners voted to certify the legislative redistricting effort’s ballot title but voted 5-1 – Thurston didn’t vote – to disqualify the open primaries proposal, saying its ballot title is misleading. The only dissenting vote was the commission’s only Democrat. This will end up in court, too.
I cannot judge everyone’s sincerity here. I can say there are some things we should be mindful of. It would be natural for the party that’s winning to oppose shaking up the system. It would be natural for some members of the party that’s losing to want to shake it up (while others who have found a niche in the status quo would want to keep things the same, too).
Let’s hope we at least get to vote on these proposals after debating them beforehand. Whether you’re a staunch Republican or a yellow-dog Democrat, or neither, the citizens’ first responsibility is not to pick a team and then cheer them on. It’s to keep a watchful eye and make sure the game is played the right way – sometimes by enforcing the rules, and sometimes, if need be, by changing them.