While two lawsuits challenging Arkansas’ legislative redistricting plan work their way through federal court, a new effort has begun to change the process.
A coalition of Arkansas community groups called People Not Politicians (PNP) announced a new campaign last week to take the process out of the hands of elected officials and create a Citizens’ Redistricting Commission tasked with redrawing district maps.
In order to qualify for the November 2022 ballot, the group will need to collect 89,151 valid signatures from registered voters in at least 15 counties.
Loriee Evans, group spokeswoman, said creation of the commission would help assure fair representation.
“We all know that voters should choose their politicians, but the current system allows politicians to pick their voters. Shifting power back to the people in order to end partisan gerrymandering is an important first step in fixing the problems in our state,” Evans said in a news release.
Attorney David Couch, who wrote the proposed amendment, said the measure is essentially the same initiative that was attempted in 2020, which was thrown out by the Arkansas Supreme Court “on a technicality.”
“We were successful in collecting over 100,000 signatures then, and I feel confident that we will do it again,” Couch said in the release.
While the proposal won’t affect redistricting already approved for this year’s election, if voters approve the measure, the commission would redraw congressional and state House and Senate lines for the 2024 election.
The commission would be composed of nine members: three Republicans, three Democrats and three members with other or no political party affiliation. Additionally, the measure prohibits participation by current and former political operatives, lobbyists and elected officials.
Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge Lee Rudofsky has scheduled a hearing for Jan. 27 on a request for a preliminary injunction to prevent the state from using the maps adopted last year for this year’s election.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas filed suit last week on behalf of the Arkansas State Conference NAACP and the Arkansas Public Policy Panel. The complaint challenged the new House district boundaries approved by the Arkansas Board of Apportionment. The three-member board includes Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and Secretary of State John Thurston, all Republicans. The U.S. and state constitutions require drawing new legislative maps based on information from the U.S. Census every 10 years.
A trial in another lawsuit, filed on behalf of the Christian Ministerial Alliance is scheduled to begin Jan. 18.
Victor Hill, a former circuit judge in the 2nd Judicial District in Northeast Arkansas, is scheduled to testify in that case, which claims that state-elected officials have worked to dilute the voting strength of minority voters.
Holly Dickson, executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas, said in an interview published by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette she favors a non-partisan redistricting process such as the one proposed by People Not Politicians.