LITTLE ROCK, Ark (AP) — Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Wednesday effectively approved a new U.S. House map that critics say weakens minority voters' influence in the state by splitting the Little Rock area among three congressional districts.
The Republican governor allowed the new congressional map to become law without his signature, a move that expresses opposition to the bill without forcing a veto fight with the Legislature.
The bill passed last week by the majority Republican Legislature splits Pulaski County among the 1st, 2nd and 4th congressional districts. Heavily Democratic Pulaski County, which includes the Little Rock area, is currently in the 2nd District.
“While the percentage of minority populations for three of the four congressional districts do not differ that much from the current percentages, the removal of minority areas in Pulaski County into two different congressional districts does raise concerns," Hutchinson said at a news conference.
The Republican governor, however, said he decided to not veto the new map out of deference to legislators and the political process.
“This will enable those who wish to challenge the redistricting plan in court to do so," he said.
Democrats have tried unsuccessfully to flip the Republican-held 2nd District in recent years. Republicans hold all four of the state’s U.S. House seats.
Supporters of the redistricting map say splitting the county makes sense since Pulaski County is in the middle of the state and helps limit the number of counties divided. Under the new map, Sebastian County in west Arkansas is the only other county divided among districts.
Previously, five counties in the state were split up.
“The new congressional districts are compact and keep community interests together," Republican Party of Arkansas Chair Jonelle Fulmer said in a statement. “These lines are largely consistent with the existing lines, which were drawn by Democrats in 2010."
Democrats have said the plan unnecessarily moves predominantly Black and Hispanic precincts out of Pulaski County, making a Republican leaning district even redder. They also note the map moves predominantly white Cleburne County into the district.
“The governor knows what we know, that the courts will have to get involved to straighten out this illegal mess, and that the Legislature is failing to be a good faith actor in the redistricting process," Democratic Party of Arkansas Chairman Grant Tennille said in a statement. “The Democratic Party of Arkansas is prepared to fulfill our part in whatever manner is appropriate with all parties involved in the coming legal process to protect Arkansas voters."
Arkansas is the only former Confederate state that hasn't elected a Black member of Congress, and opponents of the newest map said it makes that even more unlikely over the next decade.
“This is an embarrassment to the state of Arkansas to know in the 21st century we’re dealing with blatant discrimination," said Little Rock NAACP Chapter President Dianne Curry, who ran unsuccessfully for the 2nd District seat in 2016.
In making his announcement, Hutchinson cited his background as counsel in a 1990 case with the NAACP in which they unsuccessfully challenged a congressional redistricting plan. Opponents of this year's redistricting map said Hutchinson not signing the bill sent a message given that background.
The House maps are the first drawn since Republicans won control of the state Legislature in 2012. Redrawing the boundaries for the state's 100 House and 35 Senate seats will be handled this fall by the state Board of Apportionment.
That panel is comprised of Hutchinson along with fellow Republicans Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and Secretary of State John Thurston.