Appropriate politics in the middle of a pandemic

Twice a week I make the drive to Little Rock to meet with our team at the Arkansas Public Policy Panel. As outreach coordinator for the organization’s advocacy arm, Citizens First Congress, part of my job is coordinating the statewide ballot initiative strategy for our member groups.

On March 11, when the first coronavirus case was diagnosed in Arkansas, I was in the office preparing for a meeting. Up to that point, I had read an occasional article about what was happening with the coronavirus outbreak overseas, but it wasn’t a huge concern. Like a lot of people, I assumed it was just another strain of flu that would soon disappear from headlines. But by March 13, word of statewide school closures had trickled out of the capitol and our office was preparing for a new kind of advocacy work from home.

Initially the obvious priority for everyone was meeting the basic needs of our most vulnerable residents. There were endless zoom meetings with organizations across the state to gather information on medical care, feeding programs, housing security, school closures, etc. In the background we were also watching as years of work to keep political power in the hands of citizens fell apart. Passionate folks from across the country had put in thousands of hours to establish an independent redistricting commission that would protect Arkansans from political gerrymandering when district maps are redrawn in 2021.

If the idea of an independent redistricting commission doesn’t sound familiar, don’t feel too bad. Redistricting is an important process in our state government, but it’s also pretty obscure to most people. Every 10 years, following the completion of the census, our state map is divided up into legislative districts that are meant to ensure voters have equal representation in government. Legislative districts are divided by population, not by geographic area. So some rural districts may cover multiple counties, while more urban districts may only span a few miles. Ultimately the redistricting process should result in a fair and balanced map that separates voters into equal districts with no attempt to influence future election results. Over the years, we’ve seen this process corrupted by skewing district lines to favor a desired political outcome. This creates gerrymandered districts that allow politicians to hand pick their voters rather than voters choosing their politicians. Arkansas is currently ranked as the 10th most gerrymandered state in the United States.

The Arkansas redistricting process for federal congressional districts is overseen by both chambers of the state legislature. State level districts, those for the state House of Representative and state Senate, are created by a board of apportionment made up of three partisan constitutional officers: the governor, secretary of state, and state attorney general. These three elected officials are given the authority to redraw 135 legislative districts across 75 counties with very little input from Arkansas residents. If independent redistricting were approved by voters, the result would be a nonpartisan citizen led commission that minimizes the influence of partisan political operatives on state and federal districts.

That brings us back to the current global pandemic. In November voters would have cast a ballot deciding whether Arkansas would follow other states in changing over to an independent redistricting commission or continue with the partisan status quo. Unfortunately collecting signatures from 89,151 registered voters to get on the ballot is now impossible without violating an executive order and/or risking the health of everyone involved. Our last hopes for independent redistricting currently rests in the hands of a federal judge who will consider the merits of a request for extension of the petition deadline and the use of online signature collection methods.

When so many people are facing serious health and economic crises, it can feel indecent to think about politics. We should certainly prioritize the human suffering that is happening across our country above all else, but let’s not forget that our democracy can also become unhealthy when we don’t take appropriate precautions.