Opinion: When the County Election Commission draws a crowd, it's a good thing

Staff file photo by Matt Hamilton / Voters wait in line to vote on Thursday at the Hamilton County Election Commission in October 2020 on the final day for early voting in Tennessee.

In front of a packed room last week, the Hamilton County Election Commission promised more transparency in the next steps of a once-a-decade election precinct mapping process.

We hope so. But the proof will be in the pudding at the commission's next meeting on Jan. 12.

Redistricting and the precinct mapping that goes along with it is a process voters generally don't understand very well. They don't often fully grasp the horsetrading and maneuvering among elected officials as they try to keep or improve their political party bases while still remotely holding to state rules about not crossing geographic features like rivers and mountains. This year, the process was complicated by new state rules to hug census tract boundaries.

But citizens do understand how far they have to walk or drive or ride a bus, if one is available, to vote at their precinct. And they understand that where their district line falls determines who they can vote for or not to represent them on school boards, city councils, county commissions, state legislatures and the U.S. House.

That, Sherlock, was the reason the County Election Commission meeting room was packed as the election commissioners voted - even without the state's final approval of Hamilton County's new district map - to approve a precinct map that slimmed down the number of voting precincts from 135 to 88.

The election officials, who said they'd never drawn a packed room before, said reducing the number of precincts "saves county money" even as a "top priority" is to try to "keep people going to the same polling places" they've used for 10 or more years, according to Nate Foster, assistant administrator of elections.

But election officials also acknowledged to reporters present that while they still don't know exactly how many people will be voting at various locations in the next election, they do know that about 60,000 voters will be affected by the county's redistricting changes.

The room was crowded - as have been the county commission meetings in previous months - as officials took the biennial census count numbers and tried to redistribute voters based both on population growth and maintaining voting patterns. That's the polite way to describe gerrymandering.

Sometimes this is easy and sometimes it's not. In Hamilton County - thanks in part to the aforementioned crowds - those parts of our communities that usually vote Democratic are still fairly separate from those that usually vote Republican. But Nashville is an example of a community that will change.

U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, put it this way last week in an essay he wrote for the Nashville Tennessean: "If the Tennessee General Assembly gerrymanders Nashville this January, dividing Davidson County like a pizza into three or four Republican slices, ... [w]ithout changing your address, your home would shift, politically, from a county won by Joe Biden to a precinct on the tail end of a rural district won by Donald Trump. The new map will show you which of those tails you now call home. You'll probably feel like a flea on that tail because most of the other 767,870 residents will think you're a pain ..."

But there's a more practical result. It further dilutes Democratic votes. Tennessee has roughly 40% Democratic voters, but with the proposed gerrymandering for Nashville, those Democrats are guaranteed to have fewer than 11% of elected federal offices occupied by Democrats. By virtue of the make-up of the proposed new district map, it silences the voices of 29% of Tennesseans who happen to disagree with the party of Trump, Cooper wrote.

But we digress from the Hamilton County Election Commission meeting.

The primary issue of concern here is not so much the slimmed down number of precincts, as Foster says the number of polling places will probably be increased to make sure voting lines stay short. Smoothing and streamlining the precincts was more a matter of going back to the drawing board and adapting old laws (that allowed the carving of precincts within precincts) to a new law that does not.

But the primary interest of the crowd was what's next, particularly for early voting sites and especially in the new District 11.

Gertha Lee, a member of the Hamilton County Voters Coalition, said that group is advocating that Southside Recreation Center, rather than the John A Patton Recreation Center in Lookout Valley, be chosen as a new early polling location.

Southside Recreation Center can easily serve the voters in St. Elmo, East Lake and Alton Park and Lookout Valley. If Lookout Mountain is added to the early voting site in Southside, it can serve 18,000 active voters rather than Lookout Valley's 7,000. What's more, there is public bus service to the Southside, while there is not to Lookout Valley.

The election office recently added two other new early voting locations, one in Soddy-Daisy and another at the Highway 58 Volunteer Fire Department training center off Snow Hill Road. Already, early voting sites have been at the Election Commission office off Amnicola Highway, in Hixson, in Brainerd and in Collegedale.

Everlena Holmes, a co-founder of the Hamilton County Voters Coalition, says the group will stay the course advocating for a Southside early voting site and will be back for the meeting on Jan. 12.

"You know that saying," she said: "'Hear what they say, but watch what they do.'" We're with her.