Arkansas Is a Suppressed Blue State

The state’s recent legislative session shows how deeply Republicans fear Black voters will once again turn Arkansas blue

Voters arrive to be checked in at McGee Community Center in Conway, Arkansas, 2016. Photo: Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images

Once upon a time, the Arkansas state government was a solid blue oasis in the South. In 2006, Democrat Mike Beebe ran the state as governor while his party swept both chambers of the statehouse, as they had during every election since Reconstruction. Arkansas Democrats also controlled both seats in the U.S. Senate and held one of the state’s four congressional seats. Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election, further raising hopes the state might continue to have a Democratic future. At the time, I was teaching in a rural Arkansas school in Helena, a majority Black town. My school broadcasted Obama’s inaugural address. My family — I married someone proudly born and raised in the town — talked about how long we had waited for this day.

But like many states across the country, Republican leaders soon realized their best option to seize control of Arkansas was to diminish the power of Black voters. Only the political story of Blackness within my adopted home state and the ongoing efforts to suppress our voices can explain how in a few short years, a state with adequate blue representation became blood red.

Arkansas’ recent legislative session shows how deeply Republicans fear Black voters and their potential to once again shift the balance of power. After Donald Trump’s defeat last fall, Republican state Rep. Mark Lowery doubled down on what is widely recognized as voter suppression efforts by sponsoring an enhanced voter ID law designed to make it harder for Arkansans to cast a ballot. Previously, a citizen could cast a provisional absentee ballot come election time, and if they did not have a photo ID, they’d be able to sign a document affirming their identity. But now, the law requires poll workers to go through an onerous process to document the provisional ballot and then dictates several cumbersome steps for voters to determine if the state considered their ballot valid. It is part of a trend in red states to prevent the voter turnout that had reasserted Georgia as a blue state that had been suppressed across racial lines. Lowery’s bill passed along party lines, and Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed it into law earlier this month.

It’s telling that Republicans are willing to take policy positions with such clear motives to diminish Black voices. State Republicans narrowly failed to push forward a bill that would have barred public school funding to teach the 1619 Project, a New York Times Magazine initiative led by Nikole Hannah-Jones that centered the role of slavery in the story of how our nation was founded. The bill’s co-sponsors — all Republican and all white — called the project a “racially divisive and revisionist account of history.” And though the bill ultimately failed to emerge from committee earlier this month, the architects behind the defunding plan made it clear they actively hoped to silence the movement for Black lives. “An activist movement is now gaining momentum to deny or obfuscate this history,” Lowery wrote into the bill, which was dubbed the Saving American History Act.

Arkansas’ lurch from blue to red throughout the 2010s was part of a nationwide effort by conservatives to redraw district lines for self-serving ends. The redistricting resulted both in a slight increase of competitive races and the defeat of nearly all Democrats at the congressional and statehouse levels. By 2014, both U.S. senators from Arkansas were Republican. Mike Ross, the sole Democratic congressman, resigned and ran for governor in 2014; Hutchinson defeated him. Our statehouse quickly became controlled by Republicans.

State Republicans fully exploited legislative redistricting to consolidate their power and pass laws making it harder to vote.

Lowery and his District 39 exemplify this shift. His district is shaped like a nightmare mutant butterfly; no insect of such asymmetry could survive in the wild, indicating a human-made origin. When comparing the geographic area that makes up the state representative map of District 39 with an analysis of the racial makeup of the region, the southern and eastern borders of Lowery’s district cut off at the major Black population center of North Little Rock. As a consequence of this gerrymandering, District 39 is 65.1% white in a region with one of the state’s highest concentrations of Black residents. The white population of his district is 10 percentage points higher than the county’s and almost 20 percentage points higher than North Little Rock’s, which is 46.1% white and 44.4% Black.

State Republicans fully exploited legislative redistricting to consolidate their power and pass laws making it harder to vote. In 2013, the state legislature passed a law requiring voters to show their ID at the polls. The governor at the time, Beebe, stepped in to block the measure, but then the legislature overrode his veto. The law went down in flames, however, when it went up against the Arkansas Supreme Court. Republicans bided their time and fortune. Riding on the wave of Shelby County v. Holder, in which the United States Supreme Court struck down the Voting Rights Act’s racial monitoring portions, the statehouse again passed a voter ID law in 2018 that the new governor, Hutchinson, signed and upheld.

Black voters, under Republican governance, have seen a dilution of their power and the predictable impact of conservative policies. Arkansas has become a leader in the nation — not to mention the world — on locking up Black people in its county and state jails. SB24, a bill that amends Arkansas’ “stand your ground” criteria, is also set to become law. Citizens now can use lethal force if they have a “reasonable belief” their life is in danger. The old law prohibited Arkansans from doing so if there was an opportunity to flee the situation. The state now produces red meat for its red counties. For Black people, this is akin to pissing on the graves of our slain children — our Trayvon Martins and Jordan Davises.

Blackness will turn Arkansas blue again.

Political writers and organizers can find a way to make Arkansas blue again by centering Blackness in their actions. The fate of two bills shows the promise of making this happen. In 2016, citizens approved a ballot initiative called the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment, which legalized medical weed in the state. In response, the Republican statehouse tried to increase the threshold of counties needed to approve such initiatives to make it on ballots during the 2020 election. That measure failed. Decriminalizing marijuana, and — critically — protecting the ballot initiative process from requiring a supermajority of the state’s counties to agree to place issues on the ballot, are measures designed to protect Black political power and lives. Being explicit about such aims can serve as a first stepping stone to galvanizing people who support the movement for Black lives and the Black vote.

Blackness will turn Arkansas blue again. The actions of Lowery and his Republican ilk show an increasing awareness they are not presiding over a red state but a suppressed blue polity. The strength of Black voters is enough to determine elections with a disciplined organization as we saw in Georgia’s last election. It should not take that. Eliminating the laws that make it difficult for Black people to vote will give the United States an example of what a rural blue state can do for the nation. It will create a land where politicians would not dare come out against Black history and the 1619 Project without fearing we would end their careers in politics.

I write for me and us, not y’all. The founder of Established in 1865, a platform dedicated to exploring Black personhood. I Tweet @Established1865. #weoc

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