Washington County election officials eye redistricting changes

In this file photo stickers for early voters sit in a container Friday during early voting in the primary election at the Benton County clerk's office in Bentonville. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Ben Goff)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Washington County election officials tentatively agreed Tuesday on new boundaries for justice of the peace districts, but will await a few changes before giving formal approval.

The Election Commission voted unanimously to have the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission look at some "minor" changes to the ninth map formally considered by the Election Commission. Commissioners expect to see the revised map when they meet at 9:30 a.m. Dec. 9 in Room 115 at the county courthouse.

"This is not the final map," Commission Chairman Renee Oelschlaeger said Tuesday. "We'll get the adjustments on that, and then we'll move forward."

Jeff Hawkins, executive director of the Regional Planning Commission, said the changes he'll be looking at are mostly adjusting the justice of the peace boundary lines to follow lines adopted by the state for state House and Senate districts.

"We're trying to minimize the number of new precincts that will be created," Hawkins said. "So what we're looking at is mainly in areas where they changed House or Senate lines."

Map 9 can be seen on the county's website at washingtoncountyar.gov under the Election Commission. Anyone with comments may call the Election Commission office at (479) 444-1766 or send comments by email to Jennifer Price, commission executive director, at jprice@washingtoncountyar.gov. Those comments will be sent to the commissioners.

The commission asked Hawkins last week to redraw some district boundaries in response to concerns from voters about moving areas in Fayetteville from District 9, represented by Eva Madison, into District 15, represented by Butch Pond on the mostly rural east side of the county. Hawkins was able to move some of those areas back into District 9, but some areas of Fayetteville remain in other, more rural districts.

The commissioners spent some time discussing an area of southeast Fayetteville moved from District 12, represented by Evelyn Rios Stafford, into District 14, represented by Jim Wilson. District 14 covers the mostly rural south-central part of the county.

Hawkins said the districts have to be roughly equal in population and that sometimes requires urban areas be included in what have been traditionally more rural districts.

"With District 12, the numbers just don't work," Hawkins said of the area shifted into District 14. "There's way too many people in there. Even if 12 could stand it, 14 couldn't. It would be too low."

Hawkins has given the election commissioners a list of guidelines or criteria courts have recognized as acceptable considerations in drawing election districts. The guidelines include balancing the districts' populations to ensure equal representation; prohibiting discrimination based on race, color or language; drawing districts that are relatively compact and contiguous; keeping core areas of existing districts intact; keeping together "communities of interest," which include areas with common economic, social, political, cultural, ethnic or religious interests; continuity of representation; and minimizing partisanship.

Price said she received a handful of new emails, mostly opposing moving parts of Fayetteville from District 9 to District 15. One of the emails was from Sarah Bunch.

"I currently live in District 9, and, if proposed map option 7 is accepted, my neighborhood will be moved to District 15," Bunch wrote. "I have strong reservations about this proposed change.

"At this time, my neighborhood is in a more urban district," Bunch said in her email. "My house is only 1.75 miles from the Fayetteville Square .... right in the heart of Fayetteville. The neighborhoods in my district are all in close proximity to each other, and I believe share similar concerns. District 15 is a vast, much more rural, district that extends to the far south and east boundaries of Washington County, and is made up of mainly Elkins and parts of Goshen."

The commissioners said the requirement to equalize districts made some of the changes unavoidable.

"I wanted to acknowledge all of the emails we've received," Oelschlaeger said at the beginning of the discussion. "The message is 'We're not happy with the way the lines are drawn because I no longer have the same representation.' We're sensitive to that, but we don't have a lot of choices. Every 10 years we have to do the redistricting."

Election districts

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Washington County’s Quorum Court districts are redrawn every 10 years after the U.S. Census. State and federal laws require the districts have roughly equal population. Washington County’s population after the 2020 census is 245,871, up from 203,065 after the 2010 census, according to information from Jennifer Price, the county’s elections director. The target population for each of the 15 districts is 15,572, with up to a 10% variance having been established by the courts as acceptable.

The population of the districts currently ranges from a high of 20,019 in District 10, represented by Robert Dennis, to a low of 13,800 in District 14, represented by Jim Wilson.

Source: Washington County