What To Expect When You're Redistricting
Arkansas lawmakers are returning to the state Capitol Wednesday following an extended recess to formally begin the process of re-drawing the state’s four U.S. Congressional districts.
KUAR News spoke with Heather Yates, Ph.D., an associate professor of American Politics at the University of Central Arkansas, on what to expect from this year’s redistricting session. You can read an edited transcript of the conversation below.
What exactly is redistricting?
“Redistricting is the process that states undergo every 10 years to literally redraw the geographic electoral boundaries of the state's congressional districts, and on a state level its state Senate and state House districts. And the reason why the states do this is because they are commanded by Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution to take a count of the population. So every 10 years we take the Census, and then the state legislature uses that Census data then to reapportion the congressional districts to make sure that every person living in the United States has representation in the House of Representatives.”
What is the actual process lawmakers will undertake to approve a new district map?
“In the State of Arkansas we have a legislature-dominant process, so that means that the legislature is charged with conducting the business of receiving the Census data.” “Arkansas has had almost 3% population growth… and where we have seen the population consolidation in the State of Arkansas is in northwest Arkansas, is around Fort Smith, is most definitely around the Little Rock area and the Jonesboro area.
"What Republicans are doing is they're proposing adjustments to the 2010 map that rope in or extend two particular congressional districts, the third and the second, extend those boundaries out into more rural counties and are trying to propose boundaries that split particular counties like Pulaski is a battleground county, Sebastian is a battleground county because they host the more densely populated areas. And so what Republicans are proposing is to rope in some of those more rural counties because rural areas… favor Republican representation.” “Democrats fear that the Republican legislature are trying to dilute the urban concentration because they lean Democratic, more densely populated areas favor Democrats.”
Democrats have also proposed maps that put Pulaski County in the same district as Pine Bluff and the Arkansas Delta, areas that traditionally lean more Democratic. Which version of the state’s electoral map is likely to get final approval?
“The maps that are likely to get approval, it's going to come down to critical mass because the Republicans are in control of this process, they have a supermajority in the legislature and the process is a legislature-dominant endeavor. And so of course the Democrats are counter-offering the Republican proposals by putting forth proposals that include more voters that favor Democratic candidates.
“The Democrats want congressional districts for the next 10 years in which there can be a competitive Democratic candidate. If the districts are drawn in a way that locks out competition, then it’s going to be really hard for the Democratic Party on the ground in Arkansas to really engage and grow party building activities.”
What exactly is gerrymandering, and what safeguards against it exist in the redistricting process?
“The legal process is called reapportionment were we just redistribute the boundaries to accommodate for population growth; to do so with the politicized or the political goal in mind of protecting the party in power’s electoral advantage, that's where we get into gerrymandering and that's also what produces some really oddly shaped districts across the nation.”
“The [Voting Rights Act of 1965] outlines pretty much four distinct guidelines; one that the district must be compact and contiguous… the boundary must be one continuous line and the district must be geographically compact. The next two points of guidance is that the state cannot deliberately divide a community of interest, and that's a lot of language that were seen coming out of the Republicans right now is that they’re presenting the argument that the rural areas of Arkansas are communities of interest, farmers. The Democrats are going to argue the counterpoint that the communities of interest reside for them in these populated areas, these densely populated areas in the Delta.
“And lastly, states cannot be motivated on the notion of either concentrating or diluting racial communities, and so that's what we call creating a majority minority district, a majority district of marginalized minority voters.”
Is there such a thing as a perfectly-drawn district map?
“There's a few other states out there that basically outsource reapportionment to a third party nonpartisan firm that employes redistricting software. Basically they input the population data and then the software proposes the actual physical boundaries. And Iowa is probably the closest thing to finding a near-equitable electoral map for congressional districts, and it's because they actually take it out of the hands of the legislature.”