Winston-Salem redistricting might ignore precinct boundaries

by Eric Ginsburg

The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board and the Forsyth County Commission will be looking at whether they need to undertake redistricting because of population growth and change. The Winston-Salem City Council will be required to redistrict due to population changes since they last redistricted in 2006 after significant annexation.

Every 10 years, redistricting is required if US Census data indicates that different wards and districts vary overall by 10 percent or more from the smallest to largest district. Broadly speaking, the goal of redistricting is to balance the populations per district in order to equalize the weight of each resident’s vote.

The school board is waiting until the county finishes reviewing the data and determines if redistricting is necessary, spokesman Theo Helm said. If the school board needs to redistrict, they must finish the process in December, before the next election. Helm hopes to have information from the county this summer.

The process for the city council is about to begin. Collectively, the city council districts deviate from the ideal population per district by nearly 18 percent.

Winston-Salem GIS Principle Planner Lynn Ruscher said the city attempted to bring all wards within half a percent of the ideal population in 2006. If the city aims for a similar target as in the past, every ward would require redistricting, some more heavily than others. Only two of the eight are within 1 percent.

With 25,742 residents, the Northeast Ward is the furthest — 10.3 percent — from the ideal population of 28,702 per district. The East Ward and Northwest Ward will see substantial reductions, as they are both more than 7 percent larger than the ideal size.

The process is still in the initial stages, as the planning department only recently received the data. One of the first steps is to present the preliminary data, which was prepared by the firm DemoGeoGraphics, to the city council. Ruscher anticipated that presentation would not take place until July, at which point she would begin analyzing the information and drafting a plan.

“We won’t have anything for a couple of months,” Ruscher said. “I think it’s more tedious than hard.”

Whenever possible, city planners try to follow geographic boundaries like major roads, streams or railway lines as the boundaries for a ward. Ruscher said redrawn council map would be created using block-level population data.

Ruscher said in the past they have not followed existing precinct lines, in part because of an effort to go far beyond the legal requirements and balance wards so closely.

This practice of ignoring precinct lines greatly concerns George Gilbert, the elections director in neighboring Guilford County.

“There’s nothing but downsides to splitting precincts,” Gilbert said. “It’s possible for precinct officials to get confused and give people the wrong ballot. You’re just opening the door to a possibility of error with severe consequences.”

Forsyth County Elections Director Rob Coffman indicated he is not concerned about the practice of ignoring precinct lines, in part because they may be changing anyway. He said after redistricting is completed, the board of elections will consider redrawing precincts to correlate with the wards.

Some precincts have nearly 5,000 voters, Coffman said, which can be above their capacity for high turnout elections. Coffman said the board would like to keep all precincts below 3,000.

“There’s been some shifting in the population in the county in the last 20 years, certainly since the precincts have been looked at seriously,” Coffman said. “Splitting a precinct really is invisible to a voter, as long as they are given the right ballot when they check into vote that’s all they’re really concerned about.”

While admitting that splitting precincts made their job more complicated, Coffman said he was confident his staff and the electronic systems they use could handle it.

Myrna Perez at the Brennan Center for Justice said neither approach is definitively more or less favorable. Communities differ on whether the benefit of splitting precincts is worth the associated administrative challenges, she said, and people would need to decide locally what to prioritize and what works.

Ruscher said besides some basic guidelines, like keeping council members in their districts, she was unsure of how closely wards would need to mirror the ideal population but that she advocates a looser target.

If the city allowed for more population variance within the legal parameters, fewer residents would be moved to a new representative and half the wards would require minimal or no changes. Also, Gilbert said Ruscher would have more flexibility to follow precinct lines and decrease the likeliness of election errors.

By shifting approximately 2,200 residents from the East Ward into the Northeast Ward and 2,000 from the Northwest Ward into the West Ward, the city nearly would fix the redistricting problem and satisfy legal requirements.

An additional shift of 400 residents from the South Ward into the Southwest Ward would bring the city into compliance with the law, while moving 1,000 total reduce the total deviation from the ideal population distribution to 4.1 percent.

By moving 5,200 residents altogether, the city could achieve almost 4 percent variance, which is more in line with Greensboro city council’s recent move to reduce deviation to 3.4 percent. Winston-Salem could move an additional 300 residents —2,500 overall — from the East Ward to the Northeast Ward and further reduce deviation to about 3 percent and while only relocating 5,500 residents.

Bringing wards within half a percent of the ideal district size would mean moving nearly 10,000 residents into new wards, increasing confusion for voters and the burden of the Board of Elections to provide them with proper ballots.