Population unequal in county’s new district maps

Johnson County’s new County Council and Board of Commissioner districts were approved but the districts are not equally approtioned.

The new districts were approved on Dec. 30 in a special meeting of the commissioners, but population data from county council districts was not made available to the Daily Journal until Friday afternoon. The commissioners approved ordinances establishing the boundaries by precinct, but without a listing of population numbers.

The data was not available at the meeting due to staffing issues, said Shena Johnson, county attorney. County officials reviewed the data for accuracy several days after the numbers were located before releasing the data, she said.

County council districts were edited slightly to include new precincts that were added due to increases in population in the northern third of the county.

The ideal population for each district would be 40,441, representing one-fourth of the county’s 161,765 residents each. However, the districts are unbalanced with the most populous district at 45,610 and the least populous at 37,706.

Those districts are, respectively 12% greater than the mean and 7% less than the mean. Figuring those numbers together, the total deviation is over 19%, which goes against the 10% standard that triggers the requirement to redistrict following each once-in-a-decade census count.

The 10% standard is one that is established in case law. It is a standard used to apply the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, which establishes equal voting rights.

For example, in the 2004 case Mead v. Washington County Commissioners, a Washington County, Indiana, voter successfully sued the board after their approved county council district boundaries exceeded the threshold.

The Johnson County commissioners made no changes to their current districts, which divides the county into thirds. District 1, with a population of 12,793, includes the three southern townships: Blue River, Nineveh and Hensley. District 2, with 31,634 residents, is comprised of the three central townships: Needham, Franklin and Union. District 3, population 117,338, includes the three northern townships: Clark, Pleasant and White River.

Commissioner Ron West spoke at length about why the commissioners have chosen not to change their boundaries.

“The reason it has it has never been a concern for the commissioners, or this body, is No. 1 we are elected countywide, and No. 2 we are representing everybody in the county. So, we are not secular in our application of whatever our decisions are, based on district,” West said. “The only qualification district has is residency and it is somewhat archaic.”

West argued that, because the commissioners are elected countywide, not by their districts, the district population imbalance doesn’t matter much.

“Those 117,000 are going to vote how they are going to vote, regardless of what district they are in. That thought is not applicable and it has nothing to do with the fairness of elections,” West said.

The commissioners work for all residents, regardless of who they technically represent, West said. They also have divided up their duties by their areas of expertise, rather than by the location of the issue, he said.

Commissioners Kevin Walls and Brian Baird underscored West’s statements.

“You talk about only handling issues from your district but (on) one of my biggest problems – I took over 100 voicemails from someone in Ron’s district,” Walls said. “That’s just proving that we handle the whole county and not just our districts. The three of us have looked wholly at the county, not singularly in our districts.”

The commissioners are not required to have an equal population under state law because the office is elected countywide and because the county has fewer than 250,000 residents.

In Mead vs. Washington County Commissioners, the voter argued that the board of commissioners should redraw their unequal boundaries. However, the court found the boundaries did not go against the 14th amendment because it is a countywide office and does not violate the one person, one vote principle.

Though the boundaries don’t violate the law, the population imbalance for the Johnson County commissioners remains among the greatest in the state, according to Kelsey Kauffman, an Indiana redistricting expert.

The Johnson County Democratic Party has no issues with the proposed commissioner boundaries but leaders are still evaluating actions that could be taken regarding the county council boundaries, said Amanda Stevenson-Holmes, the party’s chair.