Monday, December 19, 2011

Partisan Politics in Sebastian County, Arkansas

Rex Terry
Commentary by Fort Smith attorney Rex Terry, chairman of the Sebastian County Republican Party
Sebastian County, Arkansas - Even though the election is months away, we already know that one Justice of the Peace will no longer be serving come January 1, 2013.

Democrat-controlled redistricting now places Republican incumbents Bob Schwartz and Leo Faulkner in the same JP district. Thus, if they wish to continue to serve, they will be forced to face each other in the Republican primary in May.

The situation happened because two Democrats who have not been elected to any office refused to adopt other, better redistricting plans. They instead decided on the basis of partisan politics. We often hear people on “both sides of the aisle” complaining about partisanship, as if it only happens in Washington. This is an example of what can happen at the local level. Here is how two Democrats gained the power to redistrict at least one Republican out of office.

Under Arkansas law, the Board of Election Commissioners in each county is charged with the responsibility of drawing JP districts after each decennial census. Each Board of Election Commissioners is composed of three individuals. In all 75 counties in our state, two of those commissioners are Democrats, and one is a Republican. One might wonder why that is the case. It is because the Democratic party is the “majority party” as that term is defined by Arkansas law.

After the election of Winthrop Rockefeller, the first Republican governor since Reconstruction, the Democratic controlled General Assembly enacted the law defining “majority party” as the party that holds the majority of the constitutional offices. There are seven such offices in the state, and four of them are held by Democrats. For that reason, in every county (including Benton, which has only one Democratic elected official), the composition of the Board of Election Commissioners is the same – two Democrats, one Republican.

Earlier this year, Jerry Huff, the board’s coordinator, presented a tentative JP District map that placed these two long time public servants in the same district. After several months and significant dialogue both with Mr. Schwartz, Mr. Faulkner and county Republican representatives, and consideration of a number of different districting maps, the Board of Election Commissioners made its final decision on November 17. The new JP district map would place these two Republican incumbents in the same district.

In revising JP district boundaries, the election commission’s mandate is to equalize the population (within 5%) among 13 JP districts, taking into consideration minority populations, whose voting strength cannot be diluted, and maintaining contiguity among the districts. According to the Secretary of State’s guidelines, some consideration should also be given to those Justices of the Peace presently serving the county.

Additionally, the commission takes into account congressional districts, legislative districts, and uses census block information available to it. The Arkansas Secretary of State has assisted some 43 counties with this process. Sebastian County has elected to use the services of the Western Arkansas Planning and Development District, which uses software in the process that is licensed by the Secretary of State.

While it is true that Mr. Schwartz and Mr. Faulkner live in reasonably close proximity to each other, it is equally true that they have lived in their same locations for many years, and lived in those locations, for example, the last time the redistricting process was completed after the 2000 census. It is also true that the population of our county has shifted somewhat, as people move into and relocate within the county. This is the type of situation that is encountered in any redistricting process whether it is here or elsewhere, and these are minor obstacles that are easily overcome.

Thanks to the services of County Clerk Sharon Brooks, acting with assistance from the Secretary of State’s office, Republicans presented a map that would accommodate not only these two elected officials, but all 13 JPs, including the six Democrats on our county’s Quorum Court. All that needed to happen in order to do so was a revision of the boundaries of a few voting precincts, a matter within the authority of the election commission. The majority of the commission stubbornly refused any consideration of that, seeming to hold the view that precinct lines are somehow sacred. However, they are not. For example, the election commission expanded the number of precincts in Sebastian County from 92 to 107 earlier this year.

It is telling that on the new JP district map, no two incumbent Democrats on the Quorum Court are living in the same JP District – only two Republicans. So, two Democrats, one the County Chairman, Lee Webb, and the other, David Harp, neither of whom have been elected to office, have decided that one of the Republican JPs has to go. The Republican commissioner, David Damron, voted against the plan.

So it’s partisan politics as usual, both in Washington, D.C., and in Sebastian County. The result here is the removal, by drawing lines on a map, of either Bob Schwartz or Leo Faulkner. Both of them have served honorably and well for many years on the Sebastian County Quorum Court. At least one of them will be missed by our county and their constituents 2013.

Tags: partisan politics, democrats, election commissioners, redistricting, Sebastian County, Arkansas

No comments: