Arkansas’s new congressional map released

On April 14, Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe (D) signed into law the proposed redistricting plan for the state’s four congressional districts.  The House and Senate voted a day earlier (61-19 and 23-11, respectively) to approve the plan. Arkansas was officially the first state to complete its decennial congressional redistricting plan, with many more states to follow in the coming weeks and months.

Since 1874, the redistricting process in Arkansas has been the responsibility of a Board of Apportionment consisting of the governor, secretary of state, and attorney general.  Currently, both the governor and attorney general are Democrats, while the secretary of state is Republican. Once the Board of Apportionment has drawn their plan, the state legislature deliberates and votes to either modify, approve or deny it. Both the upper and lower houses are controlled by Democrats. This year, the legislature extended the April 1 deadline, because a technical error in the original submission would have left two precincts unattached to their new districts. Arkansas experienced significant population growth that required the Board of Apportionment to expand districts drawn with roughly 575,000 people in 2000 to just under 729,000 today. As the state’s growth was concentrated in the second and third districts in the center and northwest of the state, those districts had to be downsized while the first and fourth added population.

The solution was to split five counties and one city, Fort Smith. This is significant in that it marks the first time in Arkansas state history that a congressional map has split a county between two districts. District compactness also suffered somewhat, with the fourth district jutting northward into the third. The lack of compactness and the split counties have caused some talk of possible lawsuits.

Currently, Arkansas is represented in the U.S. House of Representatives by three Republicans and one Democrat. The sole Democrat is Mike Ross of the fourth district. Representative Ross is a fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrat, who has been in office since 2000. None of the four incumbents are moved out of their districts by the plan, although the compositions of each districts changed slightly.

The first district, in the northeast of the state along the Arkansas Delta, saw the addition of Chicot County, Desha County, Lincoln County and part of Jefferson County, all in the southeast. Currently represented by first-term Republican Rick Crawford, the district voted for McCain by twenty-one points in 2008. Crawford beat Democrat Chad Causey in 2010, marking the first time since 1891 that Democrats have not held the seat. Several Democrats are said to be considering a run for the seat, including State Senator Robert Thompson, and the first looks like the Democrats’ best shot at gaining a seat in 2012.

The second district, represented by first-term Republican Tim Griffin, includes Little Rock, the state capitol. Griffin won the district from seven-term Democrat Vic Snyder last year, although it has been moving consistently to the right. In 2008, the old second district voted for McCain by a ten point margin. Out of the four districts, the second saw the least change, as only Yell County was moved out of the district. As Yell has historically leaned to the left, this change will likely make the district more conservative and thus safer for Griffin. Democratic state leaders, however, are still hoping to challenge for the second district.

Arkansas’s third Congressional district is currently held by first-term Republican Steve Womack, and it is among the most conservative districts in the nation. Located in the northwest of the state, it has been held by a Republican since 1967. The third has grown the most out of the four districts. Three whole counties and parts of three more were taken moved from the third to the less populous fourth. One area, the so-called Fayetteville Finger, was also considered as a possible move. This would have taken the mainly democratic city of Fayetteville in Washington County and put it into the fourth district, in an attempt to strengthen Democrats there. Republicans opposed the measure as overly partisan and it was rejected. Womack looks the safest to hold onto his seat out of the three Republicans in 2012.

Finally, Arkansas’s fourth district, geographically the largest and located in the southwest of the state, gained the counties shed by the third and lost the counties moved into the first and second. Republicans are looking to challenge Ross in 2012, hoping to take their current 3-1 majority up to 4-0. Their chances were likely improved by the addition of counties in the northwest, which are somewhat more conservative than the rest of the district.

Arkansas’s redistricting process was led by Democrats trying to draw a map to benefit them and their fellow party-members, but working with demographics that were not particularly favorable. The plan has generally been considered relatively non-partisan because neither party is entirely pleased with it. Its impact in 2012 remains to be seen, although its relatively close match to the previous map means that it will likely not make too significant of a difference.

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