Thursday, April 21, 2011

Arkansas's tiny persistent poverty counties carved up in re-districting

I arrived this week in my hometown, Jasper, Arkansas, to news that the surrounding county, Newton County, will soon be split between two (of the state's four) congressional districts, the 3d and the 4th. The map for this plan is shown above. Newton County has long been part of the 3d Congressional District, which includes booming Washington and Benton Counties in the state's northwest quadrant. The map below shows the current districts.

Admittedly, Newton County has little in common with the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers AR/MO Metropolitan Area (NWA), its 3d district companion until now. Newton County is one of the state's several persistent poverty counties, and one of only two (along with Searcy County to the east) such counties in the Ozarks plateau. Meanwhile, the NWA Metro area becomes more affluent by the day--as Wal-Mart, J.B. Hunt, Tyson Foods, and other corporate giants flourish there, along with their many vendors and well-compensated executives.

On the other hand, Newton County also has little in common with the 4th Congressional District, which until now has covered a full third of the state's land area, extending to Texarkana in Arkansas's far southwest corner. Further, the 4th has previously extended across the state's southern border with Louisiana, all the way to the Mississippi River and several counties deep from that southern state line. (see map below) Under the new proposal, the 4th won't extend all the way to the Mississippi River, stopping just one county short as you move north along the river, with Chicot and Desha County now moved into the 1st Congressional District. The 4th district will also not be quite as "deep" north to south as it currently is. These 4th District agriculture-oriented counties in the state's flat land arguably have even less in common with Newton County than the booming NWA Metro area that dominates the 3d District.

Bottom line: Newton County doesn't fit well in either district. Its physical geography is more like that of the 3d District in that it is on the Ozarks plateau; its political economy and culture may be slightly more similar to the 4th in the sense that it is poor and, like many counties in the 4th, sparsely populated.

What's really bugging me, I suppose, is that Newton County must be divided at all. With fewer than 8,000 residents, I find it odd that Newton County is one of only five counties in the entire state being divided between districts. Ditto regarding Searcy County, with about the same number of residents, which is being divided between the 1st and 3d districts. Not only are these two counties not in the same district, with just about 15,000 residents total, they are split--oddly--among three districts! More appropriate is the fact that the part of Newton County going to the 4th district will be accompanied by Madison, Johnson and Franklin counties, all of which feature somewhat similar economies and cultures (although Madison County is technically part of the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers Metropolitan Area because it is within commuting range).
My annoyance about this redistricting outcome was enhanced when I learned that an earlier version of the redistricting plan split neither Newton nor Searcy counties. Instead, last month's proposed plan split Washington County, home of Fayetteville and the state's land grant University of Arkansas, between the 3d and 3th Districts. Read more about that here. With some 200,000 residents, I can see Washington County being the size of county that might need to be divided between two districts, given that the goal is for each of the four districts to have about 729,000 residents. But the powerful business interests in Washington County didn't like the proposed split, and they had the clout to send legislators back to the drawing board. The outcome: a new plan that instead splits two tiny counties (Newton and Searcy) and three somewhat more populous ones: Crawford(58,740), Sebastian (121,325), and Jefferson (79,698).

Read some stories about the redistricting here, here, here and here.


Jen Wickens said...

I'm curious to know why the state is choosing a redistricting plan that splits up Searcy and Newton counties over a plan that keeps them intact. From what I know of redistricting, it is either used to maintain the status quo or to guarantee a changing of the guard. Do you have any idea of which one is more likely?

Lisa R. Pruitt said...

Good question: It's hard to say because each county has no more than a couple of thousand votes cast in any given election. With each district featuring hundreds of thousands of voters, it is hard to imagine the Newton County and Searcy County voters having an impact on outcomes. The 3d district is the most entrenched Republican District in the state and the 4th District is the most entrenched Democratic District in the state. So I don't think the presence of parts of these very low population counties is likely to affect any Congressional elections in the near future.