Jun 11 2012

Redistricting, Precinct Consolidation, and All Before August?

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, Shelby County

I think its well past emergency time, but thanks for noticing.

Earlier today, the Shelby County Commission voted to delay a vote on a redistricting proposal that was up for 3rd and final consideration.

In my last post, I detailed some of the problems the Shelby County Election Commission is experiencing regarding new US House, State Senate and House, and Unified School Board districts. This morning they released an advisory about the issue.

Now that the County Commission, which the Election Commission blames for the delay, has decided to delay a vote, one has to wonder what will happen and how the voting public will navigate the mangled mess the State House and Senate left in their wake when they decided to redistrict based on Census blocks rather than existing precincts.

With just 53 days to the August election, there are several important issues on the ballot, including the candidates for the new Unified School Board. Time is short to get this information out to the public.

Precinct Consolidation

But there are other things on the Election Commission’s agenda that are likely to also play a role in voter confusion…precinct consolidation.

Currently, there are 236 precincts in Shelby County. That’s down from a high of 272 in 2006. There is a draft plan before the Commission to combine as many as 56 precincts, leaving just 180 precincts in the County. Under the plan, the average area covered by a precinct would go from 3.3 sq/mi to 4.4 sq/mi.

However, the plan has not been publicly released. I only know about it because I happened to see a map generated by the Election Commission.

As I noted in my last post, the minutes of the April meeting have still not been released (apparently they weren’t approved in May). What’s more, the agenda of the meeting to take place on Wednesday mentions nothing about precinct changes or any other alterations that would impact the August election.

Because of the lack of information, rumors have started to spread that the Election Commission intends to make these changes before the August election. That means 56 precincts of people could be voting in a new location, with little time for notification before election day.

Stop the Blame Storming

I’ll give the Election Commission one thing: Yes, the County Commission should have approved new districts for itself before now.

That fact is not and never has been in question.

However, the silence from the body regarding informing the public about the problems, and their lack of overall willingness to really talk about anything has shifted the focus from the failings of the County Commission, to the the Election Commission.

Add to that, the lack of disclosure, or even recent minutes of meetings, and you’ve got the recipe for rumblings about the bumblings of an appointed body that, for whatever reason, just can’t seem to get it together for the public good.

That doesn’t bode well for an institution charged with protecting the most important trust of our Republic…the voting franchise.

The Election Commission meets Wednesday. A quick search of local media outlets nets nothing of substance regarding the lack of minutes, or the bulk of the business of the Commission since April with the exception of the coverage of the ongoing voter purge and the reports of the lost history fiasco.

Wednesday could be a critical day for voting in Shelby Co. It’ll be interesting if anyone pays it any notice.

May 15 2012

About That Motion to Intervene…

Posted by Steve Ross in Shelby County

Scenario 2J - Click to enlarge

Yesterday, the Commercial Appeal published an article about my decision to wade into the County redistricting issue.

The decision wasn’t a difficult one. Ultimately, this comes down to the way we are represented in our County government, and the inability of that County government to do something that is, at best, an administrative task.

To my way of thinking, this failure is indicative of other problems that we have faced for a very long time. It reflects a long pattern of inaction or worse, legislative insanity (doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result) which has played a larger role in the persistent problems we, as a community are facing.

My decision to seek to intervene in this suit reflects my personal frustration at the Commission for inaction on this and many other issues critical to the community.

Background

Every 10 years, every legislative body in the country that has specific districts is required to change the way the districts are drawn to reflect changes in population. These bodies are required to use Census data to ensure people have adequate representation in accordance with the concept of one man one vote.

This process, known as redistricting and reapportionment, is something the public rarely knows much about. In fact, in our state government, the plans that created the new State House, Senate, and US Congressional districts were so secret, all but a few legislators knew anything about the proposal before the start of session in January. From there, the plan was rammed through committee and the overall body with little discussion…for the most part.

For County and City governments, this must be accomplished by December 31, of the year the Census is released, or before the first election of the new decade.

The City Council reapportioned their districts just days before the filing deadline, to the consternation of many. The County Commission, by contrast, doesn’t have an election using the new districts until 2014. However, they are still required by state law to have the districts complete and approved by 12/31/11. Obviously, this did not happen, which led to a suit originally brought by Commissioners Bailey, Rtiz, and Roland…though the latter two have since withdrawn.

7 or 9, That Is the Question

State law plays a huge role in our County. Were it not for the state, Shelby County would not exist. We became a county in November of 1819 thanks to state action after the founding of Memphis on May 22, 1819. This relationship makes it clear that state law has supremacy over county law (not to mention all the bills passed in the state legislature over the past several years).

In addition to the 12/31/11 deadline imposed by state law on redistricting, there is also a provision that says a “majority vote” is the standard by which passage would be approved. 2J, pictured above, received at least 7 votes on all three readings of the ordinance (2nd reading it received 9).

However, our County charter requires 9 (or a super-majority) votes on third reading to pass any redistricting or tax change. This is where the conflict, from my perspective, gets interesting.

Because state law is “supreme” over county law, and because the County was in violation of state law when 2J received 7 votes on 3rd reading, I argue state law should remain “supreme” over county law. The result of this would be that 2J should become the new scenario for County Commission districts because it received the required number of votes while the County was in violation of state law.

Does that mean the County Charter is invalidated? No. Depending on how when the judge rules, it could mean 7 votes carries the day on redistricting, just like almost every other ordinance the County Commission passes.

Worries About The Charter

There are some who worry that if the state courts remove the super-majority standard for redistricting, other issues requiring a super-majority (namely tinkering with the tax rate) would somehow be impacted. I don’t really see how this is an issue.

First, the two couldn’t be more different. The tax rate is something that happens nearly every year through the budget process. Since 2004 the County Tax rate has remained consistent, even dropping a little in 2010. No one is challenging the 9 vote (super-majority) standard for changing the tax rate. Nor is anyone arguing that if one super-majority vote is made invalid, another must also be. Quite the contrary. State law says little about voting thresholds for County tax rates. Therefore, this shouldn’t impact that section of the charter at all.

Second, because the mention of a simple majority in state law only applies to the act of redistricting, it will be the only part of the charter to be impacted.

Desperately Seeking Nine

Last week, the County Commission heard the first of three readings on the redistricting ordinance again, this time brought by Terry Roland. Roland believes a ruling that seven is enough will somehow invalidate the charter and all super-majority provisions. That’s just not very likely for all the reasons stated above.

Last Monday the ordinance, which also seeks to enshrine map 2J, received 9 votes. There was talk of some special called meetings to speed the process along. The hope is to beat the judge to the ruling punch. So far, I haven’t seen any new meetings called, so I have little reason to believe they will. If they don’t then it will be at least 3 weeks from today before they get to a 3rd reading vote. Maybe the judge will wait that long, maybe not. Who knows?

Either way, it seems clear that 2J is the plan that will be adopted.

Why 2J?

To be perfectly honest, 2J is not my first or even second choice. So you’re probably asking yourself why I would go to the trouble to seek to intervene on a plan that I’m not even that big of a fan of?

The reason is actually simple. This is a representative democracy, not Burger King. I understand you can’t always have it your way. Majority rules, and the majority voted to approve 2J.

Technically, 2J meets all the requirements I had on an acceptable plan: it has single member districts, it reflects the racial diversity of our county, and it does so without splitting up too many neighborhoods.

Personally, I don’t like that Midtown is effectively split in two…North and South of Poplar. I would have liked more of a “Midtown district”. But that’s not in the cards this time. Maybe next time.

Conclusion

This really comes down to duty. The County Commission has a duty to uphold, and a big part of that duty includes upholding state law. For reasons that only the dissenters know, this process has been dragging along since September. I think this, and many other recent events tells us something about the state of the County Commission. I don’t think it tells us something good either.

Redistricting is a political process. There are political interests that will come into play. Compromise is important. I think 2J represents a lot of compromise, quite honestly. Reasonable people must come together to pass a reasonable plan. I think there are many such plans that have been introduced, including 2J, which received a majority vote on three readings back in March…after the state deadline.

But no plan has received the County Charter required 9 votes on third reading…yet, even though 2J received 9 on second reading. I can’t explain why those two votes changed at the last second. Keeping 9 votes might have resolved the issue without a ruling, rendering the lawsuit largely moot.

Of course, that’s why they’re trying so hard to show 9 votes now.

It remains to be seen if the courts will make a decision before the Commission gets to a third read on this issue. At the last meeting, one of the attorneys for the Commission indicated the Judge was losing patience. We’ll just have to see if his patience holds for three weeks.

The ball is in his court.

Jan 18 2012

Compromise and Discourse in Redistricting

Posted by Steve Ross in Shelby County, State Politics

Problem Solving, Nashville Style

If you’ve been watching the news or reading the newspaper, you’ve probably seen a story or 12 about redistricting. Federal, State and Local levels of government are in the process of doing that very thing here in Tennessee. The photo to the left is House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh and Caucus Chair Mike Turner. Both Democratic Representatives in the Tennessee House, they were forced to make a compromise, and did so in the best way they knew how. Rock, Paper, Scissors.

The process at the state level has been shrouded in mystery. Maps weren’t released to the public until a week before session and they’ve been pretty well rammed through both legislative bodies. Overall, while the state process has been about as transparent as a slab of concrete and rife with a bad aftertaste of blind self-interest trumping leadership.

By contrast, the process at the County level has been pretty out in the open. There are more plans than you can shake a stick at here in Shelby County, and all of them can be found here as well as their supporting documents. That doesn’t mean it’s been all roses.

Thursday it was reported that an Arlington Chamber of Commerce meeting turned into a rumble between competing sides of the redistricting battle here in the County. Last night, Terry Roland’s community meeting in Collierville was hijacked resulting in a police visit to the event.

With all the shenanigans surrounding the issue, it would seem that today’s meeting of the County Commission would have the potential to be a barn burner, something confirmed on twitter yesterday by Commissioner Chris Thomas to Lauren Lee of Fox 13.

No one knows what Thomas, et. al. have up their sleeve, but this kind of confidence can only come from coordinating with other elected officials, which just may be a violation of those Sunshine Laws the TN House has decided not to mess with this year.

On the Issue

While the issue of redistricting in the County Government could be framed as an intellectual debate over single-member versus multi-member districts, the reality is this all comes down to ideology. Commissioners Thomas, Bunker, Taylor and Shafer want to ensure that there are six safe Republican seats on the Commission. Mind you “safe” means 60% or more. The easiest way to do that is to make huge districts that pack all the Democrats they can into two-three member districts, and all the Republicans they can into two other three member districts. The final district would be what it would be. Voila! a 7-6 split on party and most likely racial lines.

Now, this only seems fair to the side that’s getting disproportionately more than they deserve. In committee discussions from December, Bunker, Thomas and Taylor all spoke of their concerns about the County Commission becoming 8-5 or worse, 9-4 based on partisanship. Oh the humanity!

Breaking Down Partisanship

I decided to look at some election results. All of these are general elections and can be found at the TN Secretary of State website.

What does this tell us? Shelby County votes Democratic more often than not, surprise, surprise. There is only one instance when Republicans outperformed Democrats in Shelby Co. in the past five November elections, Sen. Lamar Alexander, in 2008.

Taken all together, Shelby County consistently votes about 60.6% Democratic, which translates to 7.88 members of the County Commission.

This is why Taylor, Bunker, Shafer, and Thomas are concerned. This is why they’re asking for 60% majorities in Republican districts by partisanship. This is why they want huge districts. Its easier for a powerful minority to neutralize the majority that way.

African-Americans have dealt with this kind of chicanery since the end of the Civil War. Now, thanks to the Voting Rights Act and several court cases, African-Americans MUST be represented in proportion to their population. Partisanship is not protected, and these four Republicans know they will be rewarded by members of their party for artificially maintaining a 7-6 balance.

What About the Other Three?

Of course, this opens up the question of why Commissioners Brooks, Burgess and Ford, all Democrats, support a plan that would artificially prop up a fledgling Republican minority.

Brooks, who is term-limited, has indicated she would like to see voter outreach and education if the districts are changed to single member districts. Seems simple enough. Maybe someone should offer that.

Burgess has been relatively silent on the issue. I wouldn’t want to opine about his motivations without further information.

Ford, the maker of the motion, with the blessing and assistance of Interim Commissioner Brent Taylor and GOP redistricting guru John Ryder, has been very clear. He has future ambitions. Just days after getting elected in an unopposed August General election, Ford indicated that he would like, someday, to be Mayor.

There’s nothing wrong with ambition. Truth is, ambition can be a motivator that drives people to do more and better than they might do otherwise. We should want driven representatives who use their office to prove their worth and build a name for themselves by representing their constituents in a way that makes everyone want to be represented by them.

But there’s also a downside to ambition. The downside is individuals can work to game the system for short-term gains or worse, lose sight of what they’re supposed to be doing in the name of blind self-interest.

I don’t know that this is what’s motivating Ford, but he has communicated no real rationale for his position other than he doesn’t want the status quo to change and he wants his shot at incumbency protection.

Ahh, more altruism.

It’s About Representing the People that are There Not Protecting Your Incumbency

The original idea about the Census, reapportionment, and redistricting was to ensure that states were getting the representation in the Federal government that their populations deserved. The process has always been political, so lets not fool ourselves.

But in addition it should be about the legislative body that results sharing common interests with the communities they represent. That’s the danger of packing, stacking, and gerrymandering; the people aren’t represented as well as they could be.

My inner optimist wants it to be about actually representing the people, which is one of the reasons I support single member districts. In fact, for the entirety of my time writing at this blog I have advocated for smaller, more direct representation in local government. I have argued that we should have more direct representation in Shelby County than we do in Nashville (we don’t by the way), and that districts should be a collection of neighborhoods rather than these behemoths that cover nearly one-quarter of the population of the County.

Regardless of your partisan leanings, this is something we all should want. Folks in Whitehaven have decidely different challenges facing their communities than those near Riverdale. Folks in Midtown have a different perspective than those in Germantown. Yet, each of these pairings fall into districts that include each other. Downtown is different from Raleigh/Frayser and Millington is different from Collierville. Again, those areas are paired for partisan considerations only, not actual governing from those communities and for those communities.

This is what should be one of the key considerations in the redistricting process. Right now, we have members who are more concerned with maintaining artificial partisan counts and ensuring their incumbency. Truth be told, if you’re doing your job, incumbency isn’t something you will have to worry about.

Making Better Government

If we want a better, more responsive legislative body in the Shelby County Commission, we should demand that the districts be smaller, and closer to the people. Its not about making districts that are easier to run for, its about representing the people the best way possible. Maybe some believe these huge three member districts are better because they ensure that someone is responsive if you get a deadbeat. Well, if you do get a deadbeat, other members of the body shouldn’t be put in the position of covering for him/her thus obscuring reality to the people they are tasked with representing. If they’re bad at their job, their bosses, the voters, should know so they don’t make the same mistake twice.

The Current Districts and Where Commissioners Live

It should also be about serving communities.

The map to the left shows the current districts and where the members live. Note, the areas where there isn’t a member for miles.

Collierville, Raleigh/Frayser, the Summer Corridor, Bartlett, the list goes on.

Single member districts would give these communities a better chance of having more direct representation in County government.

I keep hearing that no one cares about this stuff, but if you’re irritated with the way the County Commission, or the City Council for that matter, deals with issues… If you feel that your area is getting the shaft, if you wish you were represented by someone within a 4 mile radius, maybe you should consider advocating for single member districts.

I don’t know many people who think the Commission is consistently working in the best interests of the County. Part of that has to do with the way the districts are drawn, because that affects who runs and how close to you they live. The other part, well that’s up to the voters. But we’ll never get there if we just decide to tune out and let whatever is going to happen happen.

You have a voice outside of the ballot box. If you think the current system stinks, I think its time you used it. You can find your County Commissioners here or just email them all at once using this link.

Also, post about this on your Facebook page, and make sure to tag them in your post. Maybe they’ll get the message.

Jan 12 2012

Whose District is it Anyway?

Posted by Steve Ross in State Politics

An interesting exchange on the floor of the Tennessee State House today. Democrats introduced a number of amendments to the House Redistricting plan, all of which were placed on the table by the Republican majority; effectively killed.

The final amendment was proposed by Jeanne Richardson. The amendment would have shifted 6 precincts into the new district she and Rep. Antonio Parkinson have been drawn into.

By all accounts, this amendment would have been tabled by the Republicans as well, but that’s not exactly how it worked out.

Here’s the floor debate.


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You’ll note, at the end of the video Minority Leader Fitzhugh rightly tried to go into caucus to talk this out. It’s not really good form to send a fellow caucus member’s amendment to the table, especially when its likely to be tabled by the opposing side in the first place.

I understand the emotional nature of the redistricting process, but that shouldn’t trump the desire to maintain the long-term working relationship between caucus members. Rep. Parkinson may find he needs a friendly vote in the future that should be a gimmie, but might not be thanks to this action.

Ed. Note: No one has mentioned anything about withholding votes or not supporting someone’s legislation or anything like that. This is based on what I’ve observed from years of watching the legislative process across Federal, State and Local governments. Legislators have long memories and just like regular people, can hold grudges. Contrary to popular belief, they are only human.

Jan 05 2012

Drawing Lines – State House and Senate Redistricting Released

Posted by Steve Ross in State Politics

State Maps are all Style with no substance

Yesterday the State House and Senate released their proposed maps for the decennial redistricting that comes right after the decennial census. You can view the State Senate Maps here and the State House Maps here.

There have been numerous reports about what’s going to happen to various locales. News outlets in Memphis have focused on the loss of two House seats and one Senate seat…something I wrote was probably going to happen back in 2009.

So while our standing in the State Legislative bodies may have been diminished, as has our percentage of the population, none of this should surprise anyone.

It also shouldn’t surprise anyone that there are a couple of Shelby Co. legislators drawn together in districts. That’s what happens when an area loses a seat or two. It is inevitable. I sympathize with those who are upset at this reality, but honestly, there’s little that can be done outside of court.

I’m not going to opine as to whether or not the districts are fair or not. Certainly, over the years since Baker v. Carr, the court case that made the state start districting based on population rather than land, there have been plenty of examples of bizarrely drawn districts passing muster. A quick look at the current maps in Shelby Co., particularly Dist. 90 as well as Dist. 83, 84, 95, 91, and 92, which run horizontally and whip and curl around in some cases, shows that shapes just don’t matter that much to the courts.

Of course, the old plan just had 6 of 16 districts in Shelby County shaped like a drawing from a blindfolded child. The proposed map has 8 of 14 districts that take a great deal of creativity to explain (84, 85, 87, 88, 90, 91, 93, & 97). That’s not to say the districts are unfair, but to say, at first glance, which is all we have, its very difficult to determine which district you might be in based on the information provided.

Maps Don’t Tell Me Anything

While its fun to look at these pretty pictures provided by the House and Senate leadership, they really don’t tell me much…except that a lot of precincts were split in the production of these maps. Anyone with an internet connection and Silverlight can draw a map if they so choose. It’s not that difficult. Translating a map from a drawing on the other hand is very difficult.

Since neither the House nor Senate saw fit to release the precinct information of the districts, all one can do is make a best guess as to what will happen should these districts be adopted. Putting out pretty maps with not so much as population data by district, tells the end user absolutely nothing except the color choices of the person drawing the map and some general ideas.

Sure, in the more rural areas its easier to determine what’s going on. Districts that include two or three counties to get to (or near) their magic number are pretty easy to analyze. Urban areas, where there are any number of existing and new lines possible (including Municipal boundaries, Precincts, Census blocks, Zip codes, etc.) are more difficult. 35 of the 99 members of the House hail from the top four largest counties in the state (Shelby, Davidson, Knox, and Hamilton). Throw in Rutherford, Williamson and Sullivan Counties and that number jumps to 44. But even those last 9 are relatively easy to determine.

Still, let’s not pretend this is transparency. It’s feigned transparency. Until some lists are released, none of this means anything. In fact, its probably more about cutting the wind out of the sails of last minute fundraisers than anything else.

Brazenly Jerkish

There are some things that irritate me about the maps, but that’s to be expected. Lumping Sherry Jones and Mike Stewart into the same district in Nashville only to create an open seat is one of them. This isn’t unfair from a legal point of view, just dickish. I’m sure we’ve done the same thing to folks in the past. This action follows the Republican strategy of attacking the oppositions strengths and turning them into a weakness, a strategy that perhaps we might want to think about.

The same can be said of what they did in Shelby. Three of the four Representatives in Shelby Co. that were lumped together in two districts are relatively new to the body. One has been there forever. But these new folks are also pretty strong voices, whether you like them or not. There are a lot of reasons they were targeted, and one of those reasons is that they are perceived as a threat.

Its interesting to me that the Republicans in the State Senate chose to undercut their youth factor. Kerry Roberts, who worked really hard to win last year, is lumped in with Jim Summerville. I have a sneaking suspicion that one of those two men have an exit strategy. Look for an appointment announcement sometime after session.

Here in Shelby Co., Minority Leader Jim Kyle and Serial Bacon Mailer Brian Kelsey are paired up. This will leave Kyle out in the cold for at least 2 years, while we wait for the term of Kelsey to expire in 2014. I’m not sure how this impacts the “even/odd” set up of the senate districts in the future, but at the very least Senate Republicans did what they wanted to do…screw over the Minority Leader.

Its an open question as to whether or not Kyle will challenge Kelsey in 2014. Since we don’t have any real data on the makeup of the district other than a visual representation, I can only guess about the partisan makeup of the district. Pretty sure its not pretty for Kyle.

One mildly humorous thing I saw in the Senate Districts, is what I call the “visual representation of what Senate Leadership is doing to Democrats”. Its made up of Districts 19 and 21. I don’t think I need to expound on that at all but I bet some State Senators are still laughing about that one.

What Does All This Mean?

Most people don’t think twice about this stuff. I’ve said it over and over again. I’ve experienced it as I wrote about City redistricting, and as I’ve observed the County process. Most folks just don’t think about how they end up in the districts they end up in, they think about who they want to represent them from the available choices, and may bemoan those choices from time to time.

Also, because redistricting comes only once every 10 years, its easy for people to forget, or even just ignore it. For the most part, only the most politically engaged geeks even care about it. Most folks feel it doesn’t impact them, but it does. It can absolutely impact those available choices so many bemoan every two or four years.

Now that the TNGOP has had their hand at this process, there’s little doubt that they’ll do everything possible to keep it. In fact, the very act of redistricting itself probably ensures they’ll stay in power for a while…and because political considerations aren’t covered in Federal law, outside of a few exceptions, I expect the maps to stand and generally agree that most people won’t see the problems.

The big takeaway from this is that other than some maps, we really don’t know all that much more than we did before, and won’t know that much more until the thing is passed and real maps and precinct lists hit the streets. Then we’ll have a better idea of where we stand as a state.

Even without more detail, Democrats know something. They know they’ve got an uphill battle. They know that its going to stink. They also know that Republicans came into power under maps drawn by Democrats, and that all is not lost if we get our game together.

There are a lot of ideas about what that means, but I’ll save that for another post.

See also:

Blue TN
Aunt B
LeftWingCracker
Braisted, 2, 3, 4
KnoxViews
Pith 2, 3, 4, 5

There are probably more, but that’s a start…