County faces deadline on district lines

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 9, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; Time, as they say, is of the essence.

Due to a short timeline Adams County has asked the Justice Department for expedited preclearance of its justice court judge and constable district lines, said Bob Latham, an attorney for the board of supervisors.

&uot;That could be anywhere from three weeks to six weeks&uot; from the time the Justice Department receives the plan, based on the county’s previous experiences with expedited preclearance, Latham said.

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That’s important, since primaries are Aug. 5, and the deadline to have absentee ballots available is June 23.

Latham said he is sure preclearance will happen in time for the justice court/constable election to happen &045; but some are not so sure.

&uot;We’re in a tight spot, and it’s going mean a special election,&uot; Beverly Merrill, secretary-treasurer for the Adams County Democratic Executive Committee, told supervisors in a Monday meeting.

Lynwood Easterling, president of the board of supervisors, disputes claims that supervisors dragged their feet on getting district maps approved.

&uot;Everybody’s trying to point fingers at us, Š but the board of supervisors did everything we were supposed to do and did it correctly,&uot; Easterling said.

In any case, to see how Adams County redistricting got to this point, one has to travel back to the year 2000.

Population shifts

In fall of 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau released figures for Natchez and Adams County. The population dropped from 35,356 in 1990 to 34,340 in 2000.

That information showed supervisors that district lines would have to be redrawn because of population shifts and a loss of residents.

County supervisors contracted with Holland & Rigby of Madison in October 2000 to draw the county’s redistricting maps.

In November 2001, supervisors voted to send the map of supervisors district lines to the Department of Justice for its approval.

Consultants draw up such maps using computer programs and census tract data to balance out the number of voters in each district.

However, more detailed verbal descriptions of the lines must also be sent with such maps, and it took mapping consultants several months to draw up such descriptions.

A complicated process

&uot;Lines can be based on natural boundaries, like creeks, or manmade ones, like streets,&uot; Latham said. &uot;You’ve got to describe all that, and it gets complicated.

&uot;Besides, you don’t want to spend additional time and money having him write the descriptions of the lines until after you hold public hearings on the maps, after you’re sure no one has any major objections to them.&uot;

As a result, the information needed for the Justice Department to make a decision on preclearing the supervisors lines was not submitted until April 2002. That information included the same type of data needed for any preclearance: maps, line descriptions, district demographics and answers to a battery of DOJ questions.

In October 2002, the Justice Department asked the county for more information, including past election returns and more input from minority residents.

The Justice Department finally gave its approval of the supervisors district lines in December 2002.

Judges and constables

That same month, supervisors voted to send maps of justice court judge and constable districts to the Justice Department.

Supervisors wanted to wait to submit the judge/constable maps until the supervisors district maps were approved, Latham said.

&uot;That’s because we wanted to coordinate those lines with the supervisors lines to avoid split precincts,&uot; Latham said. Having too many split precincts, he said, &uot;is confusing to voters.&uot;

Both two- and three-district maps were drawn for justice court and constable districts. That is because under state law, counties with fewer than 35,000 people can only have two justice court judges and two constables.

An amendment that would have allowed the county to keep three districts died earlier this year in a legislative committee.

In a supervisors meeting earlier this year, board Vice President Darryl Grennell said brought up the possibility of losing a district &uot;from the very beginning when the lost population was brought to the board’s attention.&uot;

At that time, in 2001, supervisors were assured by state Sen. Bob Dearing, D-Natchez, that the county would not lose a district, Grennell said. In a January interview, Dearing said he only told supervisors that the change would not affect them immediately.

Supervisors voted earlier this year to ask the area’s legislative delegation to submit a bill allowing the county to keep three districts. But the deadline for submitting a bill had passed, which meant amending an existing bill was the only option.

Not yet submitted

Although supervisors voted in December to send the justice court and constable district maps to the Justice Department, the plan has still not been sent because the description of the boundary lines is not yet complete.

That is because of the complicated nature of describing such lines and because Rigby has a backlog of redistricting projects due for other counties that are also trying to get redistricting completed and precleared, Latham said.

As of Friday, Latham said, Rigby had not given him an idea of when the line description could be completed.

Meanwhile, election commissioners are working to make sure voters are registered in their correct district and precinct, said Election Commissioner Larry Gardner.

The Election Commission started that process in March. The reason that was not started earlier was that precinct maps were not complete until that time, Gardner said.

&uot;As soon as the precinct maps were available, we called the board’s attorney and got on the supervisors’ agenda for them to hire us,&uot; Gardner said.

As in past election years, the Election Commission was hired to make sure voters were in their correct precincts and knew where they are supposed to vote.

&uot;They (supervisors) couldn’t have done it any sooner because they didn’t have the maps,&uot; Gardner said.

Cards should be sent out in the next few weeks telling voters where they will vote in this year’s elections.