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Washington County election officials await redistricting decisions from state

by Tom Sissom | October 23, 2021 at 7:47 a.m.
"I Voted" stickers for early voters Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, at the Benton County Election Commission office in Rogers.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Washington County election officials are waiting for the state to set boundaries for House and Senate seats before they decide how to draw the lines for Quorum Court districts.

The county's Election Commission met Friday to review three proposals showing how the 15 seats on the Quorum Court will be defined. No decision was made, and the commissioners said they want more information and more options.

"I definitely want to see alternatives," Renee Oelschlaeger, commission chairman, said Friday.

Oelschlaeger said she wants to try and have every district include a mix of urban and rural areas and if possible allow room for population growth over the next 10 years. Oelschlaeger said she wants to avoid a split between urban and rural areas on the Quorum Court.

"These three districts we have now in the south are mostly rural," Oelschlaeger said of districts 13, 14 and 15 while looking at one of the maps reviewed Friday. "These districts in the center are mostly in Fayetteville and Springdale. I would like to see if we can't have a better mix of rural and urban in every district so every JP represents the whole county."

Max Deitchler, election commissioner, said he wants to keep communities of people with similar interests from being separated in the redistricting. He said some of the possible boundary changes in the initial maps divide south Fayetteville, for instance.

"I'd prefer to not see that happen," Deitchler said.

Deitchler also asked Jeff Hawkins, director of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission, if the maps being drawn so far considered the Latinx population, particularly in Springdale.

Hawkins said that detail had not been included in drawing the lines in the three maps reviewed by the commission Friday. He said decisions on the demographics of the districts are complicated. He noted a Hispanic person was elected to the Springdale City Council in a citywide election and said if that population is sufficiently concentrated there might be a minority-majority district.

The Regional Planning Commission is drawing the maps for the county. The three maps that have been presented to the county are posted on the Washington County website at washingtoncountyar.gov under the Election Commission, along with contact information for Jennifer Price, election director, should anyone want to comment on the proposals.

The districts are redrawn after every U.S. census and state and federal laws require the districts have roughly equal population. Washington County's population after the 2020 census is 245,871, according to information from Price. 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.

Before any redistricting, the population of the districts 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.

Hawkins said the best practice will be to wait for the state Board of Apportionment to draw boundaries for state House and Senate districts. Hawkins said if those districts are drawn, the county can try to use some of the same boundary lines in drawing justice of the peace districts, requiring fewer voting precincts and making elections simpler for both election officials and voters.

Hawkins said he thinks the state maps may be completed by early November.

The county has until mid-December to complete its redistricting work, so the commission can wait for the state maps to be done, Price said.

"If those House and Senate maps are out in the next week or so, we may want to scrap all this," Price said of the three maps done for the county as of Friday by the Regional Planning Commission. "We don't want to create a lot of tiny little precincts if we don't have to."

The commission set another meeting for Nov. 3 to resume its work on the new justice of the peace district maps.

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Political redistricting

Redistricting is the process in which new boundaries for representational districts are drawn to determine how communities are represented. These districts are redrawn every 10 years based on census data.

Redistricting determines who appears on a voter’s ballot and where a person can vote, and can influence whether elected officials respond to voter needs. Redistricting is how people make sure their voices are represented equally by creating districts that have nearly equal numbers of people. The census is used to create districts of equal populations.

Source: League of Women Voters

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