People avoid gerrymandering, along with many other political topics, like the plague in conversation. Although most people dislike fiery discourse around current events, gerrymandering is unique because it throws a wet blanket over any discussion. However, that disinterest can be deadly to democracy, as illustrated by Arkansas' racially gerrymandered congressional redistricting map that became law with little incident Wednesday.
To understand the absurdity of the map, created by State Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, individuals can analyze the geography the districts contain. Congressional District 3, which houses Fayetteville, did not receive many major changes, however the map still unnecessarily splits Sebastian County, an issue which has long been a sore spot for Fort Smith residents and will remain one for the next decade.
Congressional District 1 got some minor changes, now reaching further northwest and inexplicably gaining some majority-Black neighborhoods in southern Little Rock. Congressional District 4 was also altered, gaining some of Congressional District 3 and losing Jefferson and Lincoln Counties in the southeast. It also gained a slice of Black neighborhoods in southern Little Rock.
Congressional District 2 loses more than 20,000 Black residents in southern Little Rock and gains the majority-white Cleburne County to replace them, shamelessly weakening the voting power of Black Little Rock residents.
For those who do not follow redistricting, it’s tempting to shrug it off as just politics, but this is far more dangerous than taxes and budgets. Democrats, bolstered by a core block of Black voters, came close in 2018 and 2020 to replacing incumbent U.S. Rep. French Hill, the Republican who represents Congressional District 2, forcing him to campaign in Arkansas and listen to more voters, which was good for his constituents. With their political power diluted so extremely, majority-Black Democrat voters will lack the ability to make him come to Arkansas in 2022.
The map also creates unnecessary confusion. Where one home in east Little Rock would need to contact Republican Rep. Rick Crawford for help, their neighbors a few minutes west would need to contact Republican Rep. Bruce Westerman, and their neighbors to the north would need to contact Hill. Don’t know which one represents you, or which precinct to vote in? Hopefully you have the time and resources to research the intricacies of the map to find out.
There are other factors that make the map unconscionable. State Rep. Nelda Speaks, R-Mountain Home, originally drew a map that held Pulaski County’s borders, but she was shamed by other members of her party into cutting out slices of predominantly Black areas in Little Rock and adding white Cleburne voters. Dividing Little Rock was not essential, but the cruelty of choosing one race of voters over another to strengthen the party’s position is exactly the point.
To read the comments of legislators with even a hint of subtlety is to see their true intent. State Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, disputed the idea that the map is gerrymandered, in an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, but called the partitioning of Pulaski County the “icing on the cake.”
Speaks justified the map by saying it did not split Little Rock, but when State Rep. Frederick Love, D-Mabelvale, informed her that his district, which contains part of Little Rock, was, in fact, split off, she lightly chuckled and said “okay.”
What does the future of Arkansas redistricting look like? The map will certainly be challenged, but following the recent gutting of the Voting Rights Act in court, it is unclear whether that will make a difference. Even then, the legislature has more than one way to devalue the primarily Democratic voters of Pulaski County.
Competition is the lifeblood of democracy. With a supermajority as dominant as the Republicans enjoy in Arkansas, there is little chance for truly fair maps. Whenever they face a challenge, they have the numbers and stubbornness to barrel through it, no matter who they have to bully. Whether Arkansans choose to challenge them by using their votes or their voices, it’s imperative that they do so before they lose the power of both.