Washington County election officials still sorting out precincts and polling places after commission redistricting

Nathan Baker • Sep 2, 2017 at 11:42 PM

More than a year after the Washington County Commission voted to rearrange its own districts, the county Election Commission is still trying to find order in the web of boundaries and border lines laid across the map, hoping to minimize the impact the changes will have on voters.

The presidential election — one of the busiest seasons for election offices across the country — is usually followed by a relatively calm period, a chance for frazzled election administrators and commissioners to recharge.

This year, however, once votes in the local, state and national races were certified, commissioners set to work with maps and demographics figures and polling place locations to set a plan and inform voters before candidates for county seats start picking up petitions in November.

District by district, the Election Commissioners consult maps taped to the walls in a meeting room on the third floor of the Jonesborough Courthouse, looking for the perfect layout for dozens of precincts and polling locations.

Each precinct can contain a maximum of 5,500 people: any more, and lines would be too long and poll workers would be overworked. With about 8,000 people in each of the new county districts, each district must have at least two precincts, giving 30 precincts compared to the 40 currently in the county.

But it’s not that easy.

The Election Commissioners can’t split up commission districts or census blocks, the smallest units used by the U.S. Census Bureau for its count of all households in the country every 10 years. They also try to avoid precincts split by state House election districts and city lines.

A staff member from the state comptroller’s office using a computer program to estimate precinct lines came up with 55. The election commissioners think they’ve been able to eliminate one of the 40 precincts so far in their exhaustive analysis.

The problem they’re trying to avoid, Election Commissioner Patti Jarrett said, is confusing voters.

“When you split down the middle of a street, that causes confusion for people,” she said. “They want to be able to vote with their neighbors; it gives them camaraderie.

“All of these things are important when it comes down to avoiding the apathetic voter. We want to encourage people to vote.”

Commissioner Leslie Lacy said she and her fellow commissioners also drive the roads of the county to determine travel times to polling places.

Because county commissioners decided to reapportion the districts on an off year, instead of 2020 when the state mandates districts be redrawn based on new census figures, Lacy said the Election Commission is also playing a guessing game to try to figure where new population growth will occur to make it easier to do it all again in three years.

“We’re trying to make sure that, for the sake of the voter, we don’t tell them one thing in 2017, and then in 2021, when we get this all figured out again, we tell them something different,” Lacy said.

The Election Commission had hoped to send mailings to every registered voter in the county this week to inform them of changes to their information. Based on the new county district numbers alone, Lacy said every voter’s ID card will change.

Because of the changes, voters and candidates need to know where they stand before candidates pick up petitions starting Nov. 17.

Jarrett said she doesn’t think the mailings will go out as early as the election commission wanted. The state still has to approve the new precincts before they’re sent.

Confounding the Election Commission’s efforts is that the members of the County Commission who redrew the district lines have not been very helpful in the precinct process.

“Part of the problem is that if they had included the Election Commission when they were doing this, a lot of these questions would already be answered and our part probably would have gone a little bit faster,” Jarrett said.“They have been invited to our meetings, but none of them have showed up so far. They feel pretty confident in what they’ve done, but I hope they’re understanding in why it’s taken us a while to accomplish what we need to do legally and justify to the voters why we’ve done what we’ve done.”

There’s also a lawsuit pending against the county, filed by Dr. John Daniel, seeking to reverse the new County Commission district lines.

Daniel, who hopes to run for a seat on the commission, claims the redistricting runs counter to state law and decreases county residents’ representation on the commission.

The next hearing for that lawsuit is scheduled for Sept. 14 in Chancery Court in Sneedville. The case was moved when all available Washington County judges recused themselves because of conflicts arising from their past relationships with the county.

If the judge sides with Daniel and throws out the new lines, the work Lacy, Jarrett and the rest of the Election Commission has been doing will not go out with them.

In that case, precincts would revert back to the old layout, but the two say they hope to use the experience and product of their intensive studies over the past months when the state mandated reapportionment comes around.

“It is important to me, and that’s why I got on the Election Commission,” Jarrett said. “I love our process and I love the people, and I’m going to do everything I can to protect the people.”

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