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Arkansas’s new House maps shut Black voters out, experts testify in redistricting hearing

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A hearing on whether Arkansas’s new state House maps comply with federal voting rights laws stretched into its second day Wednesday, as plaintiffs called one politician and two political scientists to the stand to demonstrate with charts, numbers, citations and personal experience the ways Black voters are shut out.

Attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union are arguing for the plaintiffs, the Arkansas NAACP and the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, for an injunction to keep these disputed new maps from going into effect. They say the redrawn district lines adopted in November 2021 deny Black Arkansans a fair shot at making their voices heard at the ballot box.

Defendants are Governor Hutchinson, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and Secretary of State John Thurston, members of the Board of Apportionment that Arkansas tasks with crafting and approving new state legislative maps every 10 years.

Brian Chilson
(From left) Secretary of State John Thurston, Governor Hutchinson and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge made up the Board of Apportionment that adopted new state legislative maps in November.

While Hutchinson has said his new maps increase the number of districts in which voters of color have a majority voice, political scientist and elections expert Lisa Handley said that in fact, these maps do the opposite.

“This plan actually decreases the opportunity to elect minority-preferred candidates,” she said.

While about 15% of Arkansans are Black, the new maps will almost certainly result in an Arkansas House of Representatives where Black candidates claim fewer than 15 of the 100 seats, she said. Arkansas currently has 12 Black House members.

An academic and consultant from Maryland who said she has 40 years of experience working on elections, Handley testified for hours Wednesday morning. Much of it was wonky explainers of the multiple methods and formulas she uses to calculate the chances that minority populations can elect the candidates of their choice. Handley runs multiple models to determine what a district’s makeup must look like for Black communities (which she noted tend to vote cohesively, backing the same candidate) to have a chance to win.

Handley found the Arkansas electorate is extremely racially polarized, meaning election outcomes would be different if Blacks alone voted, versus if whites alone voted. She found little evidence of “crossover voting,” where white voters supported candidates favored by Black voters. That means that electing Black candidates is unlikely in districts where Black voters make up less than 50% of the voting-age population.

“I would say that Arkansas is as starkly polarized as any jurisdiction I’ve ever looked at,” she said, lumping Arkansas in with Alabama and Mississippi.

Rep. Vivian Flowers (D-Pine Bluff) testified next, disputing an argument that political affiliation not race is responsible for the red Republican wave in Arkansas. Flowers pointed out that Black Arkansans were similarly underrepresented at the state Capitol 20 years ago when Democrats controlled the legislature.

“I would say this has nothing to do with party. This has everything to do with race,” Flowers said.

Flowers’ own district under the newly redrawn map adopted by the Board of Apportionment is 66% Black. The Black population in her district would drop to just over 50% under an alternative map put forth by the plaintiffs that would add five additional districts in which minority populations make up the majority of voters. Under questioning from the state’s attorneys, Flowers said she would still support that plan.

“My district is obviously important to me, but I’m here to talk about the whole state. Black voters, all voters. It’s about our system and how it’s supposed to work,” she said.

Jay Barth, an author, political scientist and advocate for Arkansas children, testified last during the marathon court day that lasted nearly 11 hours. Barth focused on what’s known as “Senate Factors,” criteria the U.S. Senate set in 1982 to help courts determine if the Voting Rights Act is being violated. Those factors include history of discrimination, division and exclusion; the ways discrimination affects access to education, health care and opportunity; racial appeals in political campaigns; and whether members of minority groups win elections.

Barth said he found a nearly universal under-representation of Black elected officials on all levels in Arkansas. He cited multiple examples of Arkansas candidates using slurs, stereotypes, coded language and gang imagery to attack opponents and make appeals to voters along race lines.

“The continued presence of racial appeals show that while history is history, it continues to have a potent legacy in the politics of today,” Barth said.

And many white voters became more entrenched in their racial resentment under Obama’s presidency, he said.

“Arkansas really stands out in terms of the level of racial resentment being particularly high and particularly persistent,” he said.

This buffet of discrimination and exclusion correlates to significant racial disparities that make Black people less likely to vote, Barth said. Black Arkansans suffer higher rates of poverty and economic insecurity. Black Arkansans are more likely to be unemployed, and at the same time are less likely to have the transportation or internet access they need to find work, he said. They are more likely than whites to be sick or disabled.

An attorney for the state pushed back on Barth’s testimony, suggesting that the differences are socioeconomic ones. While it’s true Arkansas has never elected a Black judge to the state supreme court, the defense attorney said, there are very few Black judges who run. He suggested more Black candidates would win across the board if more Black candidates sought office.

Today’s witnesses all testified for the plaintiffs, and follow-up questions for them from the defendants’ attorneys were sometimes brief and at other times hard to follow. But we can expect to hear more in defense of the new maps later this week.

Judge Lee Rudofsky, a Trump appointee in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, is presiding over this hearing and will decided whether or not to grant a preliminary injunction to keep the new maps from going into effect until a full trial can be held. The courthouse will be closed Thursday for bad weather, but the hearing is expected to get going again at 9 a.m. Friday. Rudofsky said he expects proceedings will spill over into Saturday, too.

 

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