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Election officials in NW schooled on redistricting

Population shifts spur change by Tom Sissom | September 23, 2021 at 3:28 a.m.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Northwest Arkansas election officials were briefed Wednesday on the process of redrawing political district lines to reflect the population growth shown in the 2020 census.

The Washington County Election Commission hosted officials from Benton, Boone, Crawford, Johnson, Pope and Sebastian counties for a two-hour discussion of ongoing redistricting efforts.

Jeff Hawkins, executive director of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission, said both Benton and Washington counties will have to change their justice of the peace district boundaries because of population changes. Districts must be within 10% of a median population figure.

In Washington County, which grew from around 203,000 in 2010 to about 240,000 in 2020, the target population for each of the 15 districts is around 16,400, Hawkins said. The current districts range in population from about 13,800 in District 14 to more than 20,000 in District 10.

Benton County grew from around 221,000 in 2010 to around 284,000 in 2020, Hawkins said. In Benton County the target population for each of the 15 districts is around 19,000, Hawkins said. The current districts range in population from about 14,800 in District 1 to around 32,000 in District 9.

"There's no question both counties are going to have to redistrict," Hawkins said. "That one district in Benton County, District 9, grew by more than 18,000 people since the 2010 Census."

Jennifer Price, Washington County's election director, provided a checklist of items that require action and deadlines for them to be done in time for the May 24 primary election. Price said the county election officials need to reach out to cities and school boards so they can all be aware of the deadlines. She also suggested providing opportunities for the public to view maps showing the proposed new districts in advance of their adoption.

"I think it's just good public policy," Price said.

Max Deitchler, election commissioner for Washington County, asked if election commissions should look at growth patterns from the past 10 years when drawing the new district lines.

"Can we somehow account for possible future growth?" Deitchler asked.

"That's next to impossible," Hawkins said of trying to predict future growth for redistricting purposes. Hawkins said the new district lines have to reflect the current population, with the 10% variance the courts have permitted.

Dana Caler, election administrator for Benton County, said she has had some people interested in running for school board positions in 2022 asking about the new district boundaries. School board candidates have to gather signatures on petitions from voters in the district. Caler said the candidates are asking for guidance in case the lines change.

Daniel Shults, director of the state Board of Election Commissioners, said the responsibility for making sure the signatures are valid lies with the candidates.

States, cities, counties and school districts are required to redraw their district, zone or ward lines every 10 years, after the results of the federal census become official, to keep the population of the districts roughly equal. Other political entities including community colleges and water districts may also need to redraw their district lines.

"Redistricting is all about making sure election districts are of substantially equal population," Hawkins told the group. The Regional Planning Commission is doing much of the redistricting work for election officials in Benton and Washington counties.

Hawkins said the state Legislature is responsible for redrawing the boundaries for congressional districts and several proposals have already been presented for consideration. The state Board of Apportionment -- made up of the governor, secretary of state and attorney general -- sets boundaries for state House and Senate districts, Hawkins said. With the results from the most recent census, each state House seat will represent about 30,000 people and each state Senate seat will represent about 86,000 people.

Hawkins said on the local level, school districts are responsible for drawing their zone boundaries, which each county's election commission must then approve. Cities will draw their ward boundaries, and counties will draw district boundaries for justices of the peace and constables.

Print Headline: Election officials in NW schooled on redistricting

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