After the finalization of the U.S. Census every ten years, state and local governments set about redrawing their lawmakers’ and school directors’ district lines.
Throughout this fall and winter, legislators across the state will toil over this process sure to directly impact many of their futures. Although political considerations inevitably loom large in redistricting, the proceedings are theoretically intended to make districts as compact and contiguous as possible – i.e. to ensure that they don’t look like irregular puzzle pieces.
Furthermore, the 1965 Voting Rights Act requires those redrawing district lines to avoid diluting the electoral influence of minority groups, yet the law also prohibits the predominant use of race, ethnicity or language to determine how districts end up.
The Tennessee House Select Committee on Redistricting, the first bipartisan House committee of its kind, formed by House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville), began meeting last month. Later in September, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) announced appointees – largely members of the state Senate leadership – to the Senate Ad-Hoc Committee on Redistricting.
Both state legislative committees are seeking public input in the redrawing of state-legislative and congressional-district maps. The House’s deadline for submission of outside redistricting plans is November 12. The Senate’s deadline is November 22.
After considering this input, the legislature will proceed to craft legislation to go into effect beginning with next year’s elections.
Metro Nashville’s Charter stipulates that the Nashville Planning Commission will produce redistricting plans for the city’s nine-member Board of Education (all of whose members are elected by district) and the 41-member City Council (35 of whose members are elected by district).
Nashville plans to provide updated maps online throughout the month of October and the Planning Commission could begin considering approval of new School Board and City Council districts by the end of the month. A plan approved by the commission would then go to the Council which anticipates finalizing new districts in December or January.
“We redistrict to rebalance every 10 years to maintain the principle of ‘one person, one vote,” Greg Claxton, a planner with the Metro Nashville Planning Department, said in an explanatory video.
Portions of the city that have seen the most robust growth in the last decade are mainly downtown, south and west of the Cumberland River; in the southwest in and around Bellevue; and in the southeast from Route 41A to the the J. Percy Priest Reservoir. Especially slow-growing parts of Nashville have included the city’s northwest and neighborhoods around Pennington Bend.
Another consideration planners expect to make regarding new districts relates to the shape the old districts, and the community identities therein, have historically taken.
“We want to be mindful of that and not change districts without cause,” Claxton said.
Memphis also must finalize its municipal and school-director districts in January. By the time the city does so, it could enact a restructuring of the 13-member City Council.
Currently, six Memphis councilpersons occupy one of the city’s two “super districts,” a larger district overlaid upon the city’s seven single-member districts. Therefore, each voter chooses not only one councilperson but four: one from the voter’s single-member district and three from his or her super district.
This system has caused many Memphians confusion. Councilman Martavius Jones, who himself represents Super District 8, wants the district map to feature 13 single-member districts and the nominations of their candidates to come about through partisan primaries. Both of those changes would necessitate a referendum for their approval by the voters.
One city that could wrap up its re-mapping fairly simply and quickly is Knoxville. The city’s Council comprises nine members, six elected by district and three elected citywide. According to Knoxville’s redistricting webpage, “district boundaries may not need to be changed.”
A population breakdown among the six Knoxville Council districts shows the relative deviation from the average or “ideal” district population is no greater than plus or minus five percent for any of them. As such, the city anticipates that the Council will consider renewing current district lines at its Oct. 19 meeting.
In Chattanooga, redistricting maps are prepared in the nine-member City Council’s Legislative Committee. Redistricting in the city has historically been contentious. Ten years ago, the process dragged on into the winter, as the Chattanooga’s NAACP argued with city officials over whether districts achieved adequate racial-minority representation.
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Bradley Vasoli is a reporter at The Tennessee Star and The Star News Network. Follow Brad on Twitter at @BVasoli. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Tennessee State Capitol” by Tennessee State Capitol.