One statewide coalition hopes to gather enough signatures to repeal the laws.
Opponents of new redistricting legislation are taking action following Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s decision not to veto the laws last week. Forty-one Arkansas leaders, including attorneys, politicians and NAACP presidents, signed a letter that discusses how the legislation negatively impacts Black and Latino communities. It was shared in a half-page ad in Sunday’s edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
In a letter addressed to United States Attorney General Merrick Garland, the signatories explain 21,000 Black residents will be shifted out of the second district, which previously included all of Pulaski County, into the first and fourth districts. Minority residents account for more than 65 percent of the population being moved into the first district and more than 72 percent of those being placed in the fourth. The new map adds Cleburne County to the second district to replace the Pulaski County voters being removed. Cleburne County’s population is 93 percent white.
Rep. Denise Ennett received an email from former U.S. Senator Mark Pryor last week asking her to sign the letter. Ennett is a Democrat representing District 36, which includes the portion of Pulaski County that’s being divided among three congressional districts. She signed the letter because of the “egregious nature” of the redistricting plan.
“It dilutes the votes. It dilutes representation,” she said.
The new boundaries will also make it hard for a Democrat to be elected to Congress, Ennett said. All six members of the state’s congressional delegation are Republicans. In the 2020 election, Arkansas Senator Joyce Elliott, a Democrat from Little Rock, lost to incumbent U.S. Congressman French Hill who represents the state’s 2nd Congressional District. The race gained national attention when pollsters predicted a competitive contest.
Elliott and two other Black candidates seeking Congressional office in 2020 lost their races so Arkansas remains the only former Confederate state to not send a Black candidate to Congress.
In response to the letter opposing SB 743 and HB 1982, For AR People started a petition this week as a way for other Arkansans to voice their disapproval of the bills. For AR People is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that educates the public about issues and holds politicians accountable, according to officials. After seeing the letter in Sunday’s paper, executive director Gennie Diaz said they wanted to follow the lead of those state leaders and give other Arkansans a chance to make their voices heard.
“It was really encouraging for us as this scrappy grassroots group to see leaders lead and to speak out,” Diaz said.
The nonprofit will collect signatures for about a week and then mail them to the Department of Justice. For AR People is not seeking to challenge the legislation in courts, but Diaz expects other groups or even a coalition of groups will. Although courts can provide balance by striking down certain laws, it’s costly and those valuable taxpayer dollars spent by the state to defend itself could be spent elsewhere, she said.
“The legislature knew that this litigation was possible when they passed this bill because they were warned by citizens and stakeholder groups and even by some legislators that these maps were ripe for court challenges,” Diaz said. “So we feel disappointed as a group that they chose to push through what we consider a wrong and illegal map.”
Arkansans for a Unified Natural State is also collecting signatures, but the goal of their effort is to repeal the new laws. Under the Arkansas Constitution, the number of signatures required for a veto referendum is at least 6 percent of the total votes cast for the office of governor in the last general election. The petition must be filed with the Secretary of State no later than 90 days after the final adjournment of the session at which the Act was passed.
The statewide coalition has begun its effort to collect more than 54,000 signatures from registered voters in more than 15 Arkansas counties by January 1, 2022. AUNS founder Kwami Abdul-Bey signed the Merrick Garland letter and is working on this new initiative, in part, because his family lives in the portion of Pulaski County that’s being divided.
“It’s personal for me because my wife’s family is from College Station, they were affected. I have family in southwest Little Rock, that was affected. I have people down in Wrightsville, that was affected,” he said. “So for me it seemed very intentional and very orchestrated and surgical in the way the maps were drawn.”
The coalition is still organizing and seeking volunteers to help collect signatures. The group is partnering with organizations like the Arkansas State Conference of the NAACP and the Urban League of Arkansas.
“This has nothing to do with partisanship at all. This has everything to do with what protects, what secures and what benefits all Arkansans,” Abdul-Bey said.
While groups like AUNS continue to collect signatures and speak out against the laws, Rep. Ennett said it’s likely the legislation will eventually be challenged in court. The way the redistricting process has played has been disappointing and things didn’t have to come to this, she said.
“If cooler heads prevail and people really were looking out for the best interests of Arkansans, we could have presented a good map and we would have avoided lawsuits,” Ennett said. “We would have avoided a lot of things if we just came together collaboratively and used what was presented to us.”