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More evidence piles up that state House maps silence Black voters

Arkansas News Headlines
Arkansas News Headlines

Arkansas lost 110,000 white people and gained 30,000 Black people since the last round of redistricting following the 2010 Census. Sensible people might think these shifts would translate into fresh district lines that yield more opportunities for Black voters to send their candidates of choice to the state Capitol.

But they don’t. The new House district maps Arkansas adopted in November actually boost white electoral power and make it harder for Black voters’ chosen candidates to win.

This is part of the argument presented so far in a hearing that could (theoretically) stop these disputed new maps from going into effect.

Federal Judge Lee Rudofsky presided Saturday over the third day of the hearing in United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas. The unusual Saturday session came after a two-day snow delay and ruined the weekend for everyone involved. So far testimony came from expert witnesses from both sides, plus witnesses for the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP and the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, who are plaintiffs in the case. Defendants are Governor Hutchinson, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and Secretary of State John Thurston, who together make up the Board of Apportionment tasked by state law with drawing state legislative lines every 10 years.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union aim to make the case that the maps adopted in November decrease electoral opportunity for Black voters so much that they violate federal law.

On Saturday Anthony Fairfax, a cartographer, testified about an “illustrative plan” he created to demonstrate how map lines could be drawn differently to provide minority voters more power. His illustrative map includes 16 so-called majority minority districts in which a minority population represents the largest segment of voters. Because the Arkansas House has 100 members, 16 Black districts would correspond precisely to the state’s 16% Black population.

Perhaps too precisely, an attorney for Rutledge, Hutchinson and Thurston suggested. Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Merritt questioned giving Black Arkansans voting power that corresponds so neatly to the Black population percentage. That perfect match-up indicates Fairfax focused too much on race and not enough on the other priorities the Board of Apportionment set, like compactness and keeping communities of interest together, she argued. Merritt also questioned why Pine Bluff, with its high number of Black voters, is split five ways in Fairfax’s plan, ostensibly divvying up a knot of Black votes to create more Black majority districts.

The Board of Apportionment prioritized not pitting incumbents against each other in redrawn districts, and because three incumbents live in Pine Bluff, splitting the city into at least three districts was unavoidable, Fairfax said. Fairfax also said the map he provided isn’t meant to be the only alternative, but is simply meant to show that more closely reflecting the state’s demographics in the new map is possible. Fairfax said he was confident he could draw many other versions of state House district maps that both meet criteria the Board of Apportionment set and create more of a voice for Black voters.

Brad Lockerbie, a political science professor at East Carolina University, testified Saturday for team Hutchinson, Rutledge and Thurston, despite objections from ACLU attorneys that he’s never worked on the issue of race in redistricting.

“Professor Lockerbie has exactly zero experience in analyzing minority electoral opportunity,” Brian Sells said. Judge Lee Rudofky allowed the testimony but noted Sells’ objection.

Lockerbie disputed analysis from Lisa Handley, a consultant who specializes in redistricting and compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act. Handley noted that only one district in Arkansas without a majority Black population has elected a Black representative, and that only happened in a race where there were no white candidates. Her 65-page report used eye-crossing amounts of algebra to make the case that only Arkansas districts with a majority Black population have a good chance at electing candidates preferred by Black voters.

Black candidates and/or their candidates of choice can theoretically win any district, Lockerbie said. Black Democrat Rep. Monte Hodges is leaving the state House to make a congressional run against Rep. Rick Crawford, and Handley’s analysis suggests another Black candidate will not be able to win that district as it has been redrawn. Lockerbie rejected that conclusion. Black candidates can win in Hodges’ Blytheville district, just like they could in lots of others, he said. It’s simply about putting in the work.

“They would have to work hard, but they could win the district,” he said.

Under questioning from Sells, Lockerbie disclosed that he’s charging $500 an hour for his testimony and analysis, and that his bill is up to about $15,000 after 30 hours of work on this case so far. Lockerbie acknowledged he’s a Republican and has worked for groups supporting Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis.

In making the case to keep the maps adopted in November as they are, attorneys for Hutchinson, Rutledge and Thurston have noted there simply isn’t time to rework maps before candidates start filing for primaries in the spring. Arkansas state government mapping expert Shelby Johnson agreed with Merritt Saturday that making changes at this point would be a headache for county clerks.

But he also agreed, under questioning from Sells, that county clerks’ workloads aren’t the top consideration. “Should the rights of Black voters take a backseat to the convenience of county clerks?” Sells asked. No, Johnson answered. Sells suggested that a federal judge has the power to move primary dates back to allow time for maps to be reworked.

For Saturday’s final witness, ACLU attorneys called Richard Bearden, a Republican lobbyist and consultant who worked for the Secretary of State office on redistricting.  Bearden answered questions about meeting notes he took that suggested he considered proposals from fellow Republicans on ways to add white voters, who skew Republican, to districts where numbers showed Democrats were competitive.

Court wrapped up a bit after 7 p.m., and will resume at 9 a.m. Monday. Both sides have two witnesses left, and Rudofsky said he will have lots of questions for both sides after that.

Pessimists have already pointed out that Rudofsky is a Donald Trump appointee, and we all know how much Trump cares about election integrity. Also problematic, Rudofsky is a campaign contributor to two of the three defendants in the case, Rutledge and Hutchinson. He used to work in the Arkansas attorney general’s office under Rutledge, and even hosted a campaign fundraiser for her. Plaintiffs asked him to recuse. He declined.

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