JOHN BRUMMETT: Drawing the line(s)

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A group filed Friday a proposed state constitutional amendment to take post-census redistricting from politicians and give it to independent citizens.

The development advances a trend in Arkansas by which people work directly to get big things done politically because the politicians resist doing those big things.

That sounds ironic–this idea that politicians fear the will of the people–but it’s logical.

Politicians fret they might lose their offices–oh, dear, not that–because the subsets of people who compose their political “bases” don’t approve of things the people overall desire.

A small subset of people can beat in a party primary an officeholder committing a perceived slight within that subset; but, in a heavy general election turnout, the people overall might overwhelmingly approve of that action for which the subset punishes the offending politician.

Take gun laws, for example. Republican officeholders dare not offend the National Rifle Association lest they lose in a party primary controlled by a small subset. But common-sense gun reforms like universal background checks are favored overall by the people in poll after poll.

In our raging illness called politics as usual, subsets hold more power than the whole. The state motto might better be whatever the Latin phrase is for “subsets rule.”

What we see happening as a result in recent years in Arkansas is this new dynamic: If you want something big done, then you blow through the controlling subsets to get your proposal on a general election ballot offering the greater chance of success offered by the will of the people overall.

That’s how we got the minimum wage raised. It’s how we got medical marijuana passed.

Now there is this new issue: David Couch, the Little Rock lawyer integral to those just-mentioned citizens’ petition efforts, helped file Friday with the secretary of state this proposed constitutional amendment to transfer the responsibility and authority on state legislative and congressional redistricting to the independent citizens commission.

On this issue, Couch works with a newly formed group calling itself “Arkansas Voters First” and led in part by members of the nonpartisan, good-government League of Women Voters.

The subset-versus-whole conflict here is fully clear: Elected politicians are danged well not going to give up the power to draw their own districts and perpetuate themselves. The controlling political party can’t be expected to advance general interest, but to preserve partisan interest, in that decennial process. That’s how we get gerrymandering.

So we will now proceed on that issue directly to all the people with a proposed ballot issue for November titled “The Arkansas Citizens’ Redistricting Commission Amendment.”

You might be running into petition canvassers this week. The old procedural step of editing these citizens’ proposals in the attorney general’s office has been eliminated, at the attorney general’s request. Now, canvassing for petition signatures may proceed immediately pending certification by the State Board of Election Commissioners, whose decision to certify or deny can be appealed directly to the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Offhand I’m not seeing anything misleading in this proposal’s blandly accurate aforementioned title, nor in the text outlining the new process to be followed to reapportion state legislative districts and redistrict congressional districts in 2021 and every decade thereafter.

Currently under the state Constitution, the 135 state legislative districts are drawn by a board composed of the governor, attorney general and secretary of state. The congressional districts are drawn by the Legislature, mainly through the joint work of the House and Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committees.

The replacement process laid out in the proposed amendment endures a bit of probably necessary convolution toward what ultimately is a very simple system.

Persons wanting to be independent redistricting commissioners would so apply, as long as they weren’t elected officials or lobbyists or relatives thereto. The chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court would appoint a panel of three retired judges to screen applicants and recommend best prospects. The governor and the four partisan leaders of the House and Senate would get to make two strikes each among those recommended. Then nine commissioners would be drawn, and drawings would be repeated until all congressional districts were represented.

Then the nine-member commission would put together the staff compiling the data and drawing the maps to get districts adapted to new population figures in ways that would be equal or nearly so and contiguous.

You will hear Republicans gripe about this proposal for this reason: Democrats ran redistricting for decades, but only now, when Republicans take charge, do people come forward trying to make the process independent.

I invite you to consider whether that’s more a substantive and principled point or a whine.

I also invite you to consider whether it’s ever the wrong time for better government.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers’ Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

Editorial on 03/08/2020

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