For county and city redistricting, it's wait, wait, wait

·4 min read

Oct. 17—MANKATO — Congressional and state legislative redistricting gets most of the attention, but Minnesota's cities and counties face the decennial task, too, and they're not off to a fast start.

Cities like Mankato, which divide their cities into wards and have a city council member for each, need to reset their ward boundaries after each U.S. Census. Counties need to do the same for commissioner districts. The new maps have to be in place in time for potential candidates to make decisions about whether or not to file for a seat. And for partisan offices — seats in Congress, the legislature and county boards and city councils in some urban areas — candidates want to have their campaigns humming by February in time for precinct caucuses.

"Just getting the numbers to even start something is challenging just because everything is backed up at the federal level and the state," said Blue Earth County Commissioner Colleen Landkamer.

The delay, prompted by the census being conducted during a pandemic, meant that census counts weren't released until August rather than the more typical April timeframe.

A decade ago, a lot more had been accomplished in the year before the new district lines would be in effect. The Minnesota Legislature — controlled at the time by the Republicans — had developed new maps for the state's eight congressional districts, the 67 state Senate districts and the 134 state House districts by early May of 2011. As required, the new maps ensured that population shifts had been equalized among the districts so that each elected representative would have a virtually identical number of constituents. But Democrats said the maps were designed to give Republicans an advantage in upcoming elections.

Then-Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, vetoed the legislation, noting that not a single Democratic lawmaker supported the maps. The failure by elected officials to reach agreement gave the green light to the chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court to appoint a judicial panel to take over the task.

By this time in 2011, the judicial panel was holding public hearings, including one in Mankato on Oct. 14 of that year that drew members of the public from across southern Minnesota. The maps produced by the judiciary were completed in time for precinct caucuses the following February, and cities were then able to map out their new wards, followed by counties doing the same with commissioner districts.

A decade later, with state government still divided between Democrats and Republicans, all of those steps are expected to be repeated again but the dance has barely started. The Legislature is still required to make the first attempt at reaching an agreement and legislative panels have begun discussions. But the entire House and Senate aren't scheduled to convene again until Jan. 31.

Considering Republicans control the Senate and Democrats hold the House and governor's office, it's widely believed the courts will need to do the job eventually. With time flying by, a judicial panel has already been assigned.

While County Administrator Bob Meyer and City Manager Susan Arntz said staff members are meeting to study local population shifts, they can't do much more than that.

"Until the Legislature or courts set those legislative districts, our efforts can only go so far," Meyer said.

Arntz said the city needs to have its new wards established by March 29, but she's shooting to have the work done in time for council approval in early March. After that, the county can set its commissioner districts.

Drawing up maps that have equal populations in each district takes time, as does offering opportunities for public input and a chance for discussion by elected officials. The latter group is directly impacted because redistricting changes which voters will decide their re-election fate or can even put them in the same district or ward as a popular fellow-incumbent.

And it really doesn't work for the city or county to act independently of the state. If municipal and county lines are set first, the legislative lines will likely not match up with the local government lines — forcing the creation of numerous additional precincts to account for all of the various combinations of offices from one block or neighborhood to the next. The result would be added confusion for voters and extra taxpayer expense for polling places, individualized ballots and election judges.

So the only alternative is waiting.

"And it is going to be a compressed time schedule," Meyer said.

The district lines will need to change a lot in a place like Blue Earth County, which saw its population grow from 64,013 to 69,112 in the past decade, according to the census figures released in August. If those 5,099 additional county residents happened to be proportionally distributed across the county, the task would take care of itself.

Instead, all of the county's growth and then some took place in Mankato and Eagle Lake alone. Mankato grew by 5,183 people and Eagle Lake's population jumped by 856 with the rest of the towns and most of the townships in the county facing declining numbers.

The situation is similar in Nicollet County. The combined populations of St. Peter and North Mankato grew by 1,743. The rest of the county has 16 fewer residents than in 2010.

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