OPINION: Some Hamilton County Democratic precincts likely to pick up Republican voters

·4 min read

Sep. 11—Representatives of several organizations came before the Hamilton County Commission last week to plead for transparency and openness in the redistricting process that must follow the recently completed census count.

"We want to reiterate how important it is to us and to all Hamilton County residents that the process of redistricting be transparent, open and fair," said Sharon Alexander, voter services director of the Chattanooga League of Women Voters and the voter registration lead for the Hamilton County Voters Coalition.

In her remarks, she also asked that the commission define the public process for redistricting, include nonpartisan community members on the redistricting committee, that redistricting maps be released in time for public study and comment before the commission votes on them, that the redistricting committee meetings would be livestreamed and that the commission pass a resolution that creates a timeline for the process that includes map creation, livestreaming and a time for public comment.

Commission Chairwoman Sabrena Smedley previously has said that the process would be open and the decisions and maps that emerged would be made public all along the way.

What the public should hope is that the Republican-led process never becomes the highly partisan exercise it was when Democrats controlled Congress, the state and the county for most of the last 70 years of the 20th century.

The reality for redistricting this year, though, is where most of the county's growth has occurred over the last 10 years — in the heavily Republican eastern and northeastern portions of the county.

Indeed, based on census figures, District 9 will have to give up 21% of its voters, District 8 will have to drop 8% and District 7 will have to cede 18% for the districts to remain essentially the same size, as required by law.

Since commission members are likely to not want voting precincts to cross the Tennessee River that splits the county, District 9 is likely to shrink north toward Bradley County, retaining at least its huge Birchwood precinct, its Meadowview precinct, its two Snowhill precincts and its five Harrison precincts, where current Commissioner Dr. Steve Highlander lives.

We then envision Smedley's District 7 shifting north to pick up some of the Collegedale and Ooltewah precincts now represented by Highlander.

District 8, represented by Commissioner Tim Boyd, might then slide further east to include one or more of the Westview precincts currently represented by Smedley.

However, in the case of Boyd's district, commissioners will have to decide whether to keep all four precincts in the city of East Ridge together. If they do and Boyd keeps them, he might have to give up his Missionary Ridge or Brainerd precincts.

No matter which way the precincts and districts are sliced up in the eastern and northeastern parts of the county, the districts that absorb the voters that Districts 7-9 give up will gain more people who have voted for Republican candidates in the recent past than have voted for Democratic candidates.

But we don't see that immediately changing the dynamics for District 4 Commissioner Warren Mackey or District 5 Commissioner Katherlyn Geter, both Democrats, whose districts will gain some of those voters.

On the west side of the Tennessee River, the District 1 of Commissioner Randy Fairbanks, with some growth in the Soddy-Daisy area, could shrink slightly toward its northern border with Rhea County.

District 2 Commissioner Chip Baker or District 3 Commissioner Greg Martin, or both, would then take in some of the former District 1 residents.

The one commissioner where the shifting of precincts might make a difference is District 6, though that's hardly a given.

Commissioner David Sharpe, a Democrat, is in his first term there, having defeated two-term incumbent Joe Graham, a Republican, in 2018. Prior to Graham, Democrats John Allen Brooks and before him Ben Miller represented the district.

So, the precincts that commissioners choose to place in District 6 could have a slight influence on which way it leans next year.

Mountain Creek 3, for instance, gave an equal number of votes to Sharpe and Graham in 2018, and is on the border of Baker's district. So is Red Bank 2, which gave Sharpe 54% and Graham 46%. If they're moved out of Sharpe's district, it might make a difference. Or not.

At this point, though, guessing how the precincts will be divided is just a game. But it will become a reality over the next few months since Smedley told county commissioners Wednesday the process needs to be ready for the Hamilton County Geographic Information System department by Nov. 8 and for the Hamilton County Election Commission by Dec. 15 to align things for the 2022 elections.

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