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Commentary: Columbia Ward Redistricting Lies Ahead

‘Tis the season for -- redistricting. The citizens who are redrawing legislative boundaries for states and the U.S. House have a simple chore: Take the 2020 Census data, divide by the number of seats, and create districts with roughly the same number of people in them. Are they done? Not quite. As many of districts as possible will be drawn so either a Democrat or a Republican or, occasionally, a powerful incumbent regardless of party, can be safely reelected. On the list of priorities, “fairness” is at the bottom, right below “competitiveness.”

The collective outcome of these state redistricting activities will determine which party controls the U.S. House, now very closely divided, after the 2022 midterm elections. More importantly, it will be a leading indicator of which party will control the House for the rest of the decade.

I have the honor and good fortune of representing Columbia’s Sixth Ward on the committee that is redrawing our ward boundaries. Because the Census data were released late, we got a late start and the new wards will not go into effect until after the April elections.

You would think our task is simplified, because Columbia’s City Council elections are non-partisan. Even though we know there are Republican and Democratic neighborhoods, we pay no attention. So it’s straightforward, right? Draw a map that has about the same number of people in each of the six wards. Respect prominent features such as highways, major streets and waterways. Make sure the new wards are contiguous, that is, you can go anywhere in the ward without leaving it. Call it good?

I wish. Even though populations shifts and growth were fairly evenly distributed across the city during the last decade, there were enough differences that we have to move some lines. The most prominent example is Ward One, the central city ward. Because of the population growth caused by all the high-rise apartments built downtown since 2010, Ward One will have to give back some of the territory it captured the last time in order to have enough people.

Since we don’t have political partisanship data to account for, what then do we look at? Some on the committee maintain that our mandate from City Council is clear: “One person, one vote;” do not evict incumbents from their ward; make sure wards are compact and contiguous; and make the fewest possible changes; that is, make the new map resemble the current one. We are looking at a couple of draft maps that do just that.

Others maintain that additional factors should be taken into account, such as voter turnout, owner-occupied versus rental, projections of future city growth, etc. There is, of course, no limit to the variables that could be considered, all of which is enabled by the richness of the Census data. We will be looking at maps that look at data beyond simple population.

Compounding the committee’s work is a desire to get meaningful citizen input in a time of raging pandemic. The City Council was not interested in postponing our work until the pandemic subsides.

Later this month you will have an opportunity to participate in neighborhood meetings where members of the committee will be present to describe the process and the maps. We will encourage your feedback and questions. There will also be a way to give feedback online. Look for announcements from the city about when and where the meetings are and how to access the online survey.

Dr. Terry Smith is a Political Science Professor at Columbia College and a regular commentator on KBIA's Talking Politics.