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Arkansas Voters First

A recent decision by a federal court will make it easier for a group known as "Arkansas Voters First" to get a ballot initiative in front of voters in the fall that could potentially end gerrymandering in Arkansas. The decision forgoes the need for witnesses and notarization when collecting the required signatures. Instead you can simply print or request a form be mailed from their website and then collect as many signatures as you are willing. This concession was needed because of the unusual burden brought on by COVID-19. The amendment would set forth an independent commission that would be in charge of redistricting efforts in 2021.

Independent commissions are one way of making redistricting fairer and less partisan. Traditionally it is elected officials who draw the district lines, and predictably, when they do so they make it easier for their side to hold seats in elections. Frequently this is done by grouping as many voters as possible who might oppose them into the fewest number of districts as possible so that they can't make elections competitive in other surrounding districts. It is the antithesis of democracy, and both sides of the political spectrum are widely known to be against it. In fact, a 2019 poll by the Brennan Center found only 2% of democrats and 8% of republicans nationally held a favorable view of it ( But some elected officials are reluctant to pass legislation that would reign in their own power or set limits on the ways in which they can manipulate the electorate. That’s why it’s so important that this gets done through a ballot initiative, and that voters of all political persuasions unite together to end this practice in Arkansas. In an environment that has become so divisive, finding something to unite over is a welcome respite.

According to AP news, over a dozen states already have some kind of non-political process in place to make sure their districts are drawn more fairly in 2021 ( Arkansas is widely seen as one of the most gerrymandered states in the country, and now it will be up to the citizens to sign the petition allowing voters the ultimate choice on how districts are determined come November. In the meantime, please make sure to respond to the census, the results of which will be used as part of the redistricting process. Make sure your elderly and disadvantaged neighbors and family do so as well. The results not only determine the amount of representation Arkansas gets nationally, but also the manner in which federal dollars are allocated, all the way down to school lunch programs on the community level.

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Other resources on gerrymandering:

Braver Angels

My journey to Braver Angels began shortly after the 2016 election and was motivated by two separate, but equally powerful reasons. Like others, I was troubled by the growing resentment between “reds” and “blues” and the demonizing by many of anyone whose positions ran contrary to their own. Moreover, I found myself also wondering about the reasons why so many people pulled the level for Donald Trump, a man I saw as being completely disqualified for the role of president (and de facto role-model-in-chief) by his words and behaviors leading up to election day. This says nothing about his policy positions or his lack of experience. It was easy to associate the people who voted for Trump with the worst things that he had said and done. I imagined them as complicit in that behavior; behavior that most, if not all of us, would certainly be saddened to see in our kids or close friends. But yet, there was SOMETHING that enabled a large number of citizens to overlook these things and cast that vote anyway. In an effort to understand this, and knowing that sitting
and mulling through this within my own circle without making an effort to actually talk to those who might offer me a different perspective wouldn’t help to close the harmful division I was seeing in this country, I became a member of Braver Angels.

At this point, I've come to realize that Braver Angels' work transcends any one president or politician. The need to continue this process of depolarization and the building of bridges through finding shared goals and recognizing our common humanity must continue long after the November election. It will be equally, if not more important then, regardless of the winner. We can, and maybe even should, disagree on exact policy solutions, but we have to start by listening and refusing to see the "other" as the enemy. Only then can we discover a shared vision that we have for lifting the country to its full potential for all its citizens: red, blue, and otherwise.

The Apollo missions

Last July we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission that landed the first person on the moon. Recently we passed the same milestone of the safe return of the Apollo 13 crew to Earth after an explosion on board the spacecraft that could have easily killed all three astronauts.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned more about the political and cultural context in the U.S. and the rest of the world that surrounded these events in the late 1960’s. Protests regarding the civil rights movement and Vietnam were rampant, and some thought our energies should have been spent on issues closer to home. If this could have made the situation back here on Earth better sooner, we’ll never know for sure. The events going on in other parts of the world, particularly the Soviet Union, were largely responsible for the amount of resources devoted to taking on the challenge of space travel and eventually in landing on the moon. Perhaps it would have been a sweeter journey had it been undertaken for pure knowledge or exploration of the unknown only, as opposed to the threat of spreading communism or fear of how being one-upped by the Soviets might look. Actions of this scale for purely altruistic reasons are hard to come by, but does that mean they shouldn’t be undertaken at all? In the final analysis I believe the magnitude of our achievements overshadows both the justifications behind and the amount of resources expended at the time making it happen.

The Apollo missions, and the sacrifices made by all involved, should serve as reminders that we have the ability to inspire greatness and to conquer seemingly impossible feats, both as a nation and as a people. Human ingenuity and determination are the actual limiting factors, so long as we keep our eyes on the prize and don’t get in our own way.

Refugees from Venezuela

I was recently encouraged to see the March issue of "The Rotarian" put a spotlight on the exodus of refugees from Venezuela, which is growing in scope, but not necessarily in coverage. The article was able to put a personal spin on a humanitarian crisis that is affecting millions by highlighting the unique stories of three refugees.

Having recently returned from attending an international project fair in Colombia, I experienced the struggle of those fleeing Venezuela in person. In Cali, entire families were stationed at traffic lights waiting to clean windshields, scrub tires, or sell trinkets to stopped cars. Presumably they have no permanent housing, and no easy way to acquire gainful employment, so they do whatever necessary to earn enough money just to survive. In December, The Brookings Institute projected the crisis would quickly rival that of Syria, yet relief funding remains at a level well below what the Syrian epidemic has received.

One of Rotary's areas of focus is peace and conflict resolution, and fortunately at least one of the projects featured at the fair was aimed at developing supports for those refugees fleeing into Colombia. I would encourage more Rotarians to get involved at a global level in order to maximize our impact throughout the world. The 6th annual project fair in Colombia will be held in Medellin next year, and the Colombian people are very welcoming.

Ranked-choice voting

A run-off election for two state legislature positions was recently held in Northwest Arkansas so that the final slate of candidates advancing to the general election in November could be determined.  A run-off is triggered in a primary if no candidate in a single contest wins a clear majority.  This is not an unlikely outcome when there are more than two candidates running and support is fairly evenly balanced among them.  If ranked-choice voting was utilized in state elections, then holding a run-off would be unnecessary altogether.

Ranked-choice voting is sometimes called instant-runoff, for reasons that will soon become clear. In this type of election voters pick not just their top candidate in a particular race, but also list their preference for all other candidates who are running for that position as well. When no single candidate gets a majority of first place votes, the candidate with the fewest of these votes is removed, and vote totals are retallied using the second choice of the voters who had their top pick eliminated.  If still no candidate reaches 50%+1 of first place votes, then this process repeats until someone inevitably hits that threshold.  This is all done automatically, with the result being a clear winner at the end of the election.  Other states and locales around the country already use ranked-choice voting.  I believe it could be implemented in Arkansas with sufficient constituent support.  

Replacing our current system with ranked-choice voting would save taxpayers money because only one primary would ever need to be held.  Most importantly though, since more citizens vote in primary and general elections than do in run-offs, voter participation would be increased, and we'd have more citizens actively engaged in deciding their representatives.