County Redistricting Presents Challenges and Opportunities

There's a decennial rite of passage in Knox County's body politic that occurs after new census population figures are released, as 2010's were this spring.

County Commission and school board districts must be realigned to equalize their populations, and that can entail the shifting of a lot of people and their voting precincts among the county's nine districts to reflect changes in their population over the past decade.

Of the 50,000 growth in Knox County residents, from 382,032 in 2000 to 432,236 in 2010, considerably more than half occurred in the county's two western-most districts (the 5th and 6th) that encompass Farragut and Hardin Valley furthest west, through Karns and Powell along their northern rim. Conversely, the 1st and 2nd Districts in the center city scarcely grew at all, and the same holds true for the 9th District in South Knox. Only the 4th District (near west), the 7th (North Knox) and the 8th (East Knox) had population gains that come close to the county norm.

Pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court's "one man, one vote" edict, a deviation of 10 percent from the smallest to the largest district has become the maximum allowable. But as matters stand, the 5th and 6th Districts with about 55,000 people each are on the order of 30 percent larger than the 1st, 2nd, and 9th, and 15 percent above the county norm of 48,000.

While school board districts presently differ considerably from County Commission districts, the same patterns hold true for them. So in both cases there's got to be an eastward migration of more than 5,000 people from the far west, and because the law also requires that districts must be compact and contiguous, that flow must go into the adjacent near-west 3rd and 4th Districts, overloading them in turn. The saving grace is that this overload creates leeway for the underpopulated 1st and 2nd Districts to extend westward to get their headcounts up sufficiently. That leaves only the 9th District to forage for more people outside the confines of South Knox.

To their credit, County Commission and the school board have formed a Joint Redistricting Task Force to address the needed changes in a coordinated way. At an organizational meeting earlier this month, the task force set goals of keeping communities together and minimizing district changes to the extent legally permissible. Beyond that, school board members are resolved that at least one of the county's 14 high schools should reside in each board district. And while everyone agreed it would be desirable to bring Commission and board districts into conformity, no one was clear how feasible this would prove to be.

The respective bodies have until year's end to approve a redistricting plan, with County Commission having the final say. But there's recognition that the process needs to be completed sooner because, with 2012 being a presidential election year, the primaries for county offices up for re-election occur in March in conjunction with Tennessee's presidential primary. So prospective candidates for those offices need to know sooner rather than later in which districts they live, since residency is a requirement to run for district office. Incumbents are exempt from this requirement for one additional term after a redistricting, and at least at their public meeting, none of the task force members made preserving their own district residency status a goal.

All of this may be of much more interest to office holders and seekers and those with ties to them than to the public at large. But plenty of voter confusion can result from a district change and even more so from a change in the precinct at which they cast their ballot. Reconfiguring the county's 93 precincts to get sufficient district population parity can become almost a squaring-the-circle exercise. So a resort in prior redistricting has been to change precinct boundaries.

Recently appointed Knox County Administrator of Elections Clifford Rodgers exhorted the task force to avoid this. Any such changes require written notice to affected voters, he explained, but many fail to heed it and show up at their accustomed polling place only to be told they've now got to go somewhere else to vote. Rodgers also urged the task force to avoid what are known as split precincts, in which subsets of their voters are confusingly in two different districts. Split precincts aren't permitted for County Commission districts, but eight school board districts presently have them.

This represents the first time that Knox County has the opportunity to achieve congruity of Commission and board districts. That's because of the 2008 change in the county's charter that reduced the size of Commission from 19 members to 11—with one from each of nine districts and two at large. Previously, when 19 commissioners were elected from nine districts, the 5th District had three seats and 50 percent more population than the other eight.

Congruity would remove confusion on the part of voters who reside in different Commission and board districts, and perhaps foster better working relationships between commissioners and board members whose districts are aligned. Presently, for example, 6th District Commissioner Brad Anders has parts of four different school board districts in his terrain, and that's a lot of relating to do.

But achieving congruity won't be easy. When shown a sample redistricting plan that yours truly cobbled together, the co-chair of the task force, 4th District school board member Lynn Fugate, took immediate exception because it changed the high schools that she and several other board members represent. She and others affected may conjure up a way to preserve their existing representations. But it won't be in conformity with any sensible set of County Commission districts, and that would be a shame.