Election officials rush remedy when some voting district lines found wrongly drawn

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In an election season full of surprises, this may be the biggest one yet: At least several hundred Hamilton County residents have been voting in the wrong state legislative, county commission and school board races for the better part of a decade.

As a result, a couple of races in today's county general and state primary elections will see either too many or two few votes, leading to the possibility of new elections in House District 28 and Hamilton County Board of Education District 5.

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photo This map shows the variance between the county and state-drawn boundary line dividing Senate districts 10 and 11, House districts 29 and 30 and County Commission districts 7 and 8. The orange state-drawn line follows census block boundaries along Jenkins Road. The county-drawn line in red traces the municipal border between Chattanooga and Collegedale. (Contributed map)

Another 42 people will vote today in three brand-new precincts on provisional ballots, all created Wednesday just for them.

And there are likely to be questions raised about how, and why, the longstanding errors came to light just three days before an election.

Hamilton County and state officials mostly downplayed that part of the puzzle Wednesday, emphasizing the fast response to get it corrected in time for today's election.

"It's a bad situation, it's horrible timing, but at the end of the day we want to make sure eligible voters cast their votes in the right district," state Elections Coordinator Mark Goins said by phone from Nashville.

"Every vote may count in these districts. Certainly, we hope we don't have a close election when some folks sat home and didn't go vote when they should have."

There was lots of blame-shuffling Wednesday after Hamilton County election commissioners learned of problems with voting district lines that could affect ballots cast in seven county commission and seven school board races, as well as the state House and Senate races. Only districts 3 and 6 on the county commission and school board are unaffected.

The problem precincts are in Collegedale, Concord, Pleasant Grove, Red Bank and St. Elmo, according to maps provided by Hamilton County GIS.

Goins said the issue came up Friday when his office was looking at early voting turnout by precincts in various counties. Workers noticed some Hamilton County voters were casting ballots outside their state Senate districts, he said.

The problem is discrepancies between Senate district lines drawn in Nashville and local districts drawn here in 2011, following the decennial census in 2010.

Senate lines must by law conform to census blocks, said Jason Mumpower, chief of staff for state Comptroller Justin P. Wilson.

The comptroller's office doesn't draw any district lines but it does provide data, geographic location points and other information to election commissions, Mumpower said.

Those lines are laid down atop local commission and school board districts created by the county commission. The two sets of lines need to match as nearly as possible. The disagreement comes in when you ask why they don't.

The state folks believe the locals tweaked the district boundaries, perhaps to keep subdivisions together or make use of natural dividers such as a creek or a road.

"It appears the situation had to be by someone at the local level amending the maps to border parcels rather than census blocks," Mumpower said. "If you look at the micro level and see jagged or curved (lines) instead of straight, you've got some local smoothing."

Some local officials with knowledge of county redistricting say that's what happened too - and that the state has never questioned the tweaks before.

Election Commission Chairman Mike Walden, though, said the county can't change anything and said it may be a difference in perspective between the state and Hamilton County's GIS department, which draws the actual maps the county commission creates.

"They're looking at it from 80,000 feet and GIS is looking at it locally," he said.

At Wednesday's meeting, Walden and Elections Administrator Kerry Steelman described how Steelman got a call on Monday evening from Goins' office, and how they worked to solve it ahead of today's election.

Steelman said of 325 people affected, 43 had cast early ballots. Of those, 13 were in contested races: three in House District 28 and 10 in school board District 5.

Walden said should either of those races come down to two or nine votes, respectively, a new election would have to be held because those wrongly cast ballots could have made a difference.

He said election officials need to make sure the 282 people in the mixed-up districts who might come to the polls today will vote in the right district. The election commission created and approved customized provisional ballots for those voters, creating three new precincts for 42 voters whose district lines didn't place them in any existing one.

"I really don't know how it got messed up, we just know it is messed up and we've got to fix it," Walden said.

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.