Honey, I Shrunk County Commission

A Knox County panel faces the unenviable task of creating new commission districts

To accommodate Charter changes voters approved last fall, the county must be divided into nine equal populations. Presently the fifth district is 50 percent larger and has three commissioners, but the next commission will have only one representative per district. To make everyone's vote about equal, Knox County must redistrict.

The federal Constitution requires a census in years divisible by 10, followed by redistricting of House seats. State and local governments also use census data to adjust political boundaries, so Knox County gets the joy of redistricting two election cycles in a row. The Charter petition group could have gazed into the future and seen this coming. The expense and bother could have been spared simply by postponing adoption of a smaller commission until after the census. Now we get a practice run before the big job.

Though redistricting is done for noble reasons, the process is rife with skullduggery. It has been used to divide minority communities, secure seats for incumbents or take them away, and to build party fiefdoms. We all intuitively know that districts should have sensible shapes and enclose communities, but we still wind up with monstrosities like the 17th State House district, which starts in Sequoyah Hills, hops the river, gobbles up South Knoxville, sends a tentacle along John Sevier Highway and engulfs all but the northern tip of Jefferson County.

To prevent oddities and outrages, a panel of three commissioners and three citizens has convened, set goals and ground rules, and asked citizens to submit proposals from which they will choose. Election Administrator Greg Mackay asked that ward and precinct boundaries not be altered, an excellent suggestion since this tends to confuse and anger people on election day when they show up where they voted before and get turned away. Proposals submitted so far respect this request and just shuffle voting districts around.

This makes sense for the practice run, but it makes the job harder. Whereas most city wards contain 3,000-4,000 people, heavily populated county precincts can exceed 10,000. The ideal population of a district is 42,448, and you tend to overshoot or undershoot when you only have big pieces to fit together. Next time around, the larger precincts may need to be broken up (again).

Metropolitan Planning Commission staff used mapping software to explore possibilities, and they found permutations that move the fewest people, move the fewest incumbents and best equalize populations. Unfortunately, those are three different maps among the eight submitted so far. The redistricting panel will not have an easy choice. Their guidelines are fair and thoughtful, but any process this complex is going to force tensions and compromises. Fortunately, several options exist that seem equitable.

Federal law requires minority communities be clustered rather than divided, so efforts must be made to maintain a black voting power in the first district. Likewise, all communities should be kept intact as much as possible. Some proposals split Farragut in two, but the best do not. Farragut submitted its own plan, naturally with itself in a single district. Fountain City and Powell and Inskip deserve similar consideration, yet most plans carve them apart. "Keep communities together" is a noble ambition that may get compromised in choosing a new map.

One community probably should be split: the university. Students rarely vote in local elections, so they add to a district's population without adding votes, an unfair advantage for a district that holds university voting districts.

While it is wrong to intentionally carve an incumbent out of his or her district, it is also wrong to give an individual special consideration over citizens. The panel should discard proposals that appear to target a commissioner arbitrarily but otherwise pay little mind to whether an incumbent moves. Given that the data is from the 2000 Census, the panel should not get hung up on sizes being exactly equal either.

I wish them well in finding a good solution to a challenging problem, and I hope we can learn lessons to make the 2012 redistricting smooth and fair.