Officials pause revision of maps: Commissioners vote against changes before 2022 election

After more than a month of discussing new district map proposals for certain county council seats, the Brown County Commissioners voted to not make any changes to the district maps ahead of next year’s election.

Precinct changes that were approved earlier this year for Washington Township already caused changes to the district map for county council District 1, 2, 3 and 4 seats.

Under the new precinct map, District 4 is now made up of Jackson 4, Washington 3 and Van Buren precincts. District 3 will include only Washington 1 and 2. District 2 is made up of Hamblen 2, Jackson 1 and Jackson 3. District 1 now consists of Hamblen 1, Hamblen 3 and Jackson 2.

The commissioners decided early in October to look at the precincts that make up the county council districts after approving changes to the Washington Township precincts and Census data showed a population deviation gap between the districts with the highest and lowest populations.

In August, the Brown County Election Board recommended and the Brown County Commissioners approved reconfiguring all of Washington Township’s four voting precincts.

The order establishing the new districts was formally approved last month.

Beginning next year, the four voting precincts in Washington Township will be condensed to three with the current Washington 4 being renamed Washington 3. All in-town Nashville voters will cast their vote at the Washington 2 precinct now.

The precinct change happened after Nashville Town Council decided to elect all of its members at-large from among in-town residents instead of requiring three of them to live in specific areas of Nashville.

The county now has 11 precincts to make up the four county council districts.

With those changes in mind, proposals for a new county council district map were due back at the Nov. 3 commissioners meeting. There were three proposals submitted along with the current district map on Oct. 20.

Of the proposals submitted, commissioners were particularly looking at the one submitted by the League of Women Voters Brown County.

The League submitted a map to the commissioners that kept almost all of the townships together, but created a larger gap in population. Under the LWV map, the population deviation would be 1,104 people between District 1 and District 4.

The League proposed District 1 be made up of the three Hamblen Township precincts and that District 2 would include all four of the Jackson Township precincts. District 3 would be the Washington 2 precinct, or the town of Nashville, and Washington 1 precinct. District 4 would be Van Buren and Washington 3.

The commissioners were expected to make a decision on redistricting at the Nov. 17 meeting. Before that meeting the League submitted a new proposal that included splitting Hamblen 1 and Washington 1 precincts into two smaller precincts each to help reduce population deviation as compared to their previous proposal.

“Information on state redistricting mandates emphasize the importance of population equity — under 10 percent max deviation —, as well as keeping districts compact,” a letter from the League to the commissioners states.

The letter continues that the League did not have the above information when they submitted their proposal, which focused more on keeping townships together and less on population deviation.

Deciding to pause

The League’s Co-Vice President Sonia Leerkamp told the commissioners on Nov. 3 that their first map represented one of the primary goals of redistricting, which is keeping voters with common interests in particular areas of the county together.

The League’s new proposal kept districts compact and reduced population deviation by taking one half of Hamblen 1 and one half of Washington 1 precincts then putting them in District 3 along with Washington 2.

The other half of Washington 1 would then go into District 4 along with Washington 3 and Van Buren precincts. The other half of Hamblen 1 would remain in District 1.

Commissioner President Jerry Pittman said he liked the League’s newest map proposal.

“It keeps the communities altogether. But you would have to re-precinct. That meets both objectives of keeping communities together and gets the deviation down to less than 10 percent,” he said.

But after reviewing a timeline of deadlines from the Indiana Election Division the commissioners decided they did not have enough time to implement precinct and district boundary changes in time for candidates to file for next spring’s primary election. Candidates can begin filing to run for office in January, so the new map would have to be in place then.

Precinct boundary changes were due to the state in October. There was concern expressed that if additional precinct boundary changes were submitted it could put the county’s Washington Township precinct changes at the back of the line for review, potentially causing that to not be in place in time for next year.

A memo from the election division states that changes will be processed on a “first come, first served basis” and that anything received after the Oct. 15 deadline will be reviewed after the counties who submitted their requests on time.

Once the election division approved any re-precincting orders that has to be published at least 10 days before Jan. 4.

”I am not sure we would meet the timeline for the end of the year. We jeopardize the Nashville district if we make that change,” Commissioner Diana Biddle said.

To amend what was submitted to the state for Washington Township precincts would require rescinding the order that was approved in October and submitting a new one with the changes, commissioners said.

“It seems like that ship has sailed,” Commissioner President Jerry Pittman said.

“I like the proposal in many ways, but it would require redefining the precincts. This whole thing got compressed into a very short time frame. We normally would have six months instead we had six weeks.”

Looking ahead

The cost to notify voters in District 1 and 2 of the changes to boundary lines was also a factor in the commissioners’ decision to not move forward with a new map.

“There is certainly a very substantial economic impact to the clerk and election board’s budget. The clerk and the election board budget went over their budget this year in a non-election year,” Biddle said.

The budget for next year for both the clerk and the election board will have to cover two elections, which will place additional constraints on funding, she continued.

Notifications will still be sent to voters in Washington Township.

COVID-19 delayed the release of the 2020 Census numbers, which helps inform the district boundaries.

“If we hadn’t had COVID I think we would have been in a beautiful position to look at this,” Biddle said.

The current deviation between the districts with the highest and lowest populations is 742, which is lower than the deviation using 2010 Census numbers, Biddle said.

“We’re really not that far off one way or the other. We are as close as we can get it,” she said.

League Co-Vice President Laurie Teal encouraged the clerk, the commissioners and the election board to put a date on their calendars to start looking at redistricting in eight years ahead of the 2030 Census.

Biddle said she agreed.

“I think 10 years from now I think we will have some substantial housing changes in Brown County that will necessitate a much bigger picture,” she said.

If a precinct gets more than 2,000 registered voters over the next 10 years a new precinct would need to be added since precincts are supposed to have 2,000 or less voters. The precincts in the county council districts reflect total population and not voter population.

There are two precincts in Washington Township that have over 1,000 voters, Biddle said.

League President Shari Frank encouraged the commissioners to decide what criteria from the Indiana Code they believe is important when establishing district boundary lines.

Indiana Code 36-2-3-4 states county council districts must: be compact and subject only to natural boundary lines, like railroads, major highways, creeks and parks; not cross precinct boundary lines; contain, as nearly as possible, equal population; and include whole townships, “except when a division is clearly necessary to accomplish redistricting under this section.”

The precinct boundaries must also touch that make up a district. State statute sets the number of county council members in counties with certain populations at seven with four being elected by district and three elected at-large by the entire county.

“The League’s map was attempting to incorporate a lot of the feedback that came from the public hearing for redistricting at the state level where it was loud and clear the public wants to have community,” Frank said.

“The important thing is to define your criteria.”

Pittman and Biddle both said they had not heard from citizens about the proposed changes.

“I have seen nothing on social media. I have had no phone calls or communication from anybody,” Pittman said.

Biddle continued that Brown County as a whole could be looked at as a community with similar interests.

“People say where are you from most people say I am from Bloomington, I am from Greenwood, I am from Beech Grove. What do we say? I don’t say I’m from Nashville or from Bean Blossom. I say I am from Brown County. I think there are a few pocket populations,” she said.

A motion to keep the district map as it is with the Washington Township changes was approved unanimously.