Backers of putting an initiative on Arkansas’ November ballot to create an independent redistricting commission have announced that they have filed 50,000 more signatures following a 30-day deadline extension by Arkansas’ Supreme Court while it reviews supporters’ appeal of GOP Secretary of State John Thurston’s decision to reject all of their signatures as supposedly invalid. Thurston contends that signature-gatherers for this initiative and a separate one to adopt a form of instant-runoff voting had not “passed” background checks, even though the groups certified that they had “acquired” them.
Redistricting reformers had already submitted nearly 100,000 signatures before the initial deadline earlier this summer, and combined with this latest tranche of signatures, they should have a sufficient cushion to ensure that at least 89,000 are valid statewide and are of a number equivalent to 5% of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election in at least 15 of Arkansas’ 75 counties—that is, if the state Supreme Court overturns Thurston’s decision to reject all of their signatures in the first place.
A federal appeals court had recently rejected allowing supporters to gather signatures without being witnessed in person, which a lower court had enabled so that voters could sign the forms at home and mail them in. However, while the plaintiffs haven’t indicated whether they would appeal that ruling, the fact that they just submitted tens of thousands of additional signatures shows that their loss in federal court may not end up defeating the ballot effort.
If this effort does qualify for the ballot and wins voter approval, it would prevent Arkansas Republicans from gerrymandering the congressional and legislative districts for the first time since at least the Reconstruction era, if not ever.
The proposed measure would create a commission whose nine members cannot have been an elected official, lobbyist, party official, or an employee or relative of such people within the last five years. The state Supreme Court’s chief justice would appoint a panel of three retired state judges to help select the commissioners from among citizen applicants, and they would group the applicants into three pools of 30 people each: one for Democrats, one for Republicans, and one for unaffiliated voters.
The governor and legislative leaders of both parties in each chamber would each be able to strike two applicants from each pool, whittling each group down to 20 names. The judges would then randomly select three applicants from each of the pools to choose the commission’s nine members. It would take the vote of six members to pass any map, including a two-member majority from each of the three party groups.
The commissioners would be bound by several criteria when drawing maps, including that they be drawn using the total population and don’t unduly favor any party. Commissioners would also be required to consider, in order of priority, a number of other factors: contiguity; protection of racial and language minorities; barring county or city divisions except to satisfy the other criteria; compactness; and political competitiveness.