Washington County election officials narrow choices on district maps

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)
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 plan to finalize a map of the new justice of the peace districts at a meeting next week.

The Election Commission on Wednesday pared the maps commissioners were considering from six to two and indicated those two maps are similar enough they expect to be able to choose one.

"We're on the right track of narrowing it down," Jennifer Price, the county's election director, said during Wednesday's meeting. "Maps two and six may end up looking very similar. I don't think we're missing anything."

The commissioners asked Jeff Hawkins, director of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission, to make some changes to both of the remaining maps and bring the revised versions to a 1 p.m. meeting Nov. 17 at the County Courthouse.

The Regional Planning Commission has been drafting possible district maps for the county since the 2020 census numbers were released. Election districts are redrawn every 10 years to reflect population changes detailed in the federal census.

Election commissioners agreed their preferences included keeping the new districts as close to the existing ones as possible and avoiding changes pitting incumbent justices of the peace against one another. Both maps remaining under consideration accomplish those goals.

Hawkins told the commissioners courts have recognized several criteria for 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.

The commissioners spent some time Wednesday trying to match justice of the peace district lines with other political divisions. Commissioner Jim Estes said since school district boundaries and city limits are more permanent, the county should try to have districts mirror those lines.

"We know those lines are going to be there," Estes said.

Renee Oelschlaeger, commission chairman, echoed Estes preferences for following established lines.

"I would like to see us, if we could, make sure that Fayetteville and Springdale are separate," she said.

Oelschlaeger said she does want Hawkins to try to have the district lines mirror the Fayetteville-Springdale boundary north of Lake Fayetteville in particular.

The maps drawn for the justice of the peace districts follow other political boundaries as much as possible but can't match them exactly, Hawkins said. Other district boundaries are set by the state Legislature, the state Board of Apportionment, and the school districts and cities. Counting state House and Senate districts, school districts and city election districts, there are roughly 122 lines of election district boundaries in Washington County, he said.

"The Election Commission is drawing 15 of them," Hawkins said.

Hawkins said the Regional Planning Commission will try to accommodate the commissioners' requests but said they needed to understand almost any changes to the boundaries of one district requires changing a neighboring district.

"It's a domino effect," Price said.

Price said she will post the two maps still under consideration on the county's website and remove the maps eliminated from consideration.

The commission agreed to try to choose a final map at its next meeting and set times for public input. Price said members of the public will be able to view the proposed final map online and leave comments there. Commissioners agreed to set aside time for public viewing and comments at meetings set for Nov. 22 and 30.

The Election Commission held a public comment session after the 2010 census and the only attendees were five justices of the peace, Price said. She hasn't received any public input during this redistricting process, she said.

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Election districts

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

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