By Scott Robertson
The reapportionment committee of the Washington County Commission has begun the process of reducing the size of the commission which currently consists of 25 members in 10 districts. By how many members the commission will shrink remains a very open question.
At a meeting last Wednesday night, commissioners asked Chris Pape, the county’s GIS (Geographic Information System) specialist, to create maps showing how county commission districts might be reapportioned under four different scenarios:
• Nine districts with one commissioner each
• 15 districts with one commissioner each
• Seven districts with two commissioners each, and
• 10 districts with two commissioners each.
Pape informed the committee members of the legal obligations they would have to meet to make the process acceptable to Nashville. The number of voters represented by each commissioner must be within a deviation less than the current 10 percent.
In fact, said County Attorney Tom Seeley, “whatever scenarios you consider, they have to improve the deviation in all scenarios.”
Also, the districts must avoid gerrymandering, by being, as the law states, “compact and condensed.”
To generate the four maps Papa will use computer models that apportion districts by use of census blocks. Those blocks represent certain numbers of voters. Switching just a few blocks between two districts can cause changes that ripple throughout the map.
“We cannot split census blocks,” said Commissioner Joe Grandy, committee chair. “Those blocks are based on natural boundaries of some type – roads, mountain ridges, rivers, streams – some physical separation.”
Said Greg Matherly, commission chair, who has been part of previous redistricting and reapportionments, “when you get down to trying to create something around a 5 percent deviation, just moving a very few census blocks can change the whole map. When that computer spits out a map, you’re going to be close to where you have to be.”
Commissioner Joe Wise made the motion to move forward with the exploration of the process of changing the size of the commission, which would require reapportionment and redistricting. Commissioner Gary McAllister seconded that motion, which passed unanimously.
McAllister then reiterated that the process needs to take place in such a manner that each citizen of the county be equally represented. Grandy then restated what Seeley had told the committee in executive session beforehand. “The attorney general’s opinions, while none relate to exactly what we’re doing, imply that there is a need for equal representation in the county and for the deviation (between districts of how many voters are represented by each commissioner) to be as small as possible. Our goal should be to make the deviation as small as possible.” Currently the smallest district is short by around 700 voters per commissioner and the largest is more than 750 voters over. “At this point,” Grandy said, “we are sort of at the max range of even what’s acceptable.”
Wise then said he would prefer each district have the same number of commissioners. Currently there are six districts with three commissioners each, three districts with only two commissioners and one district with a single commissioner. While each commissioner represents roughly the same number of voters, said Wise, “I think it just doesn’t make sense to voters as they try to understand what’s happening.”
Added Commissioner Todd Hensley, “some people see 10th district commissioner Forrest Boreing being the only commissioner in his district and say, ‘He’s getting outvoted by those three-commissioner districts every time. Having just one commissioner per district would take care of that.”
“Or all twos or all threes,” interjected Commissioner Robbie Tester, who after the meeting said he favors each district having two commissioners instead of one, “in case you have a ‘bad’ commissioner, that decreases the impact on the district.”
Having two commissioners per district would mean the commission would have an even number of members, so any vote ending in a tie would vote the motion down. Thus, if all commissioners were present, any successful motion would have to pass by a minimum of two votes.
Wise then said redistricting could save the county money every election cycle. “I think it’s worth noting that if we draw the maps with a sensitivity not to political preferences, but to the state house districts – we have 41 precincts in Washington County – and potentially as many as half of those are a byproduct of the way the county commission districts (are currently) drawn. If we came back to the drawing board with a goal of doing this in the most efficient way possible, we might be able to eliminate 15 or 18 precincts, and that (can provide real costs savings) to the county come election time.”
Boreing agreed. “I would love to see the maps drawn up as to what would be the most economical for this county as far as election time, the voting precincts.”
Matherly replied, “We won’t have any control over that. The election commission lays out the voting precincts. That’s entirely their call.”
“But,” said Grandy, “we can set it up to help them make decisions that can save the county money.”
“Well, they’re going to do what they’re going to do,” Matherly replied.
Said Pape, “When we start drawing lines, I’ll ask (Administrator of Elections Maybell Stewart) down.”
Wise pointed out that in the last election, because state house districts and county commission districts do not align, it would have been possible that both state house representatives would have come from the same county commission district. “Wherever possible, if we could eliminate the crossover of those lines, it would be good.”
Grandy then said such an approach would demand that once the computers draw the new district lines, the commissioners would not gerrymander the district lines. “The computer will keep this deviation as low as possible.”
Grandy asked if Pape could provide the four maps in time for the committee to make a recommendation to the full commission at its next meeting. Pape indicated his workload would not allow that to happen. Tester then pointed out there is no need to rush, saying, “We’ve got four years before this takes effect.”
Whatever decision the commission eventually approves, it will not take effect until the next elections in 2018. The committee then agreed to give Pape a month to generate the maps for the committee’s next regularly scheduled meeting.