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To the Editor:
Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD), like a county or school district, is a subdivision of state government. Arkansas was the first state in the nation to establish SWCD law, and SWCDs began forming in 1937 in order to combat soil erosion. There are about 75 Districts (basically one for each county) in the state of Arkansas. Each SWCD has a five-member board of supervisors of which two are appointed and three are elected. All supervisors serve without pay, and I commend them for serving their districts.
While they distribute state and federal grant money to help farmers conserve and protect resources, supervisors are not elected in general elections, but in special elections in which proof of landownership is required. "Qualified electors" are allowed to vote in the election of SWCD supervisors; however, that definition was changed in 1969 state law to mean "any owner of land within the district" (Section 2; 1969, No. 181, A.C.A. Section 14-125-106). I believe this requirement of landownership was a backlash against the repeal of the poll tax in 1964 and 1969 (state/federal) and the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968.
Almost all Soil and Water Conservation Districts in the U.S. today do not require landownership in order to vote for the SWCD supervisors. Why does Arkansas? You do not have to have kids in school in order to vote for the school board. Why would landownership be a requirement to vote? Is there still a lingering white supremacy effect from events like the Elaine Massacre of 1919 in which hundreds of African Americans men, women, and children were hunted down and killed in response to a Progressive Farmers and Household Union meeting? They were sharecroppers and tenet farmers, and they won't be allowed the vote today. This law is a disgrace to their memory.
One of the most rewarding jobs I ever had, was working as a farm hand for a season in Mississippi. I was not a landowner then, but I could vote in Mississippi. My grandmother's family were sharecroppers in Alabama. She picked cotton, but she won't be able to vote in Arkansas. Today, farm hands aren't allowed to vote (unless they own land). The people who work the land, do not always own it. We all have a responsibility to preserve and protect our resources regardless of whether we own land.
What is Arkansas really saying when it disenfranchises non-landowners? It is sending a message that certain groups do not matter. You don't vote. You don't matter. Please ask you state representative to change the legal definition of "qualified elector" in Soil and Water Conservation District law.
-- Katie Mann
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