Morrison County is stuck in somewhat of a limbo stage in terms of redistricting.
County Auditor Chelsey Robinson went through the process with the County Board, Tuesday.
The Minnesota State Legislature has a deadline of Feb. 15, 2022, to complete its redistricting plan for federal Congressional and state legislative boundaries. Once that is complete — but not until it is done — cities and townships have until March 29, 2022, to formally adopt their apportionment plans. Only then can county boards begin the formal process of adopting their redistricting plan, with a deadline for completion by April 26, 2022.
“Redistricting is the process of redrawing the boundaries of election districts done in the United States done after the completion of the decennial census,” Robinson told the Board. “The purpose of redistricting is to ensure that the people of each district are equally represented.”
Under Minnesota statute, counties are required to redistrict if precinct boundaries that were formerly a commissioner district are no longer there, if there have been annexations that created non-contiguous districts or if a district population varies by more than 10% of the average of the population for the county. County districts must be as equal in population as is practical and be compact and contiguous.
The stipulation that the population may not vary by more than 10% of the average of the population for the county is what may end up causing, if nothing else, a time crunch for the Board. As the city of Little Falls works through redistricting its wards — which may not happen until March 2022, depending on the Legislature — its final plan will impact the population in three of the five total county districts.
Before it can approve a plan, Morrison County must also publish its proposed redistricting plan for three weeks, hold a public hearing and pass a resolution.
“The timing is quite tight,” Robinson said. “I’ll be in communication with the city of Little Falls. My recommendation would be, when we get to that point, to work with the city and gather their drafts and their plans. Say they have three plans, or five plans, we would make our plans based off of those plans.”
According to 2020 census numbers, in their current form, only one of the five county commissioner districts does not meet the 10% threshold. But, because of that, redistricting is necessary to even out the population and bring all of the districts into compliance with statute.
The 10% threshold is figured out by dividing the total population according to the 2020 census — 34,010 — by the number of commissioner districts. Morrison County has five. That comes to an average of 6,802 residents per district. Ten percent of that number is 680 — meaning all of the five districts must have a population within 680 of the 6,802 average.
District 1, which is represented by Mike LeMieur and consists of the cities of Motley, Randall and Little Falls ward three, along with Cushing, Darling, Green Prairie, Motley, Rosing and Scandia Valley townships, is the district that does not currently meet the 10% threshold. The district has a population of 7,663, which is 861 people more than the average residents per district. A total of 181 people would have to be removed for it to meet the 10% threshold.
The challenge becomes how to best shift those residents around to even out the numbers, while still keeping everything contiguous and compact. However, the commissioners must also attempt to make the change in population less than 5% to avoid making LeMieur run for re-election.
The 5% rule states that if the district’s population changes by more than 5%, a new vote must take place for who represents that district. In the case of Morrison County, 5% of the 6,802 average is 340. That number represents the total voters impacted by redistricting. So, even if the number of overall voters in a district changes by only 10 after redistricting, if 170 people were shifted out of that district and 180 new ones were brought in, that would equal 350 voters affected, and it wouldn’t meet the 5% rule.
“The county commissioner would then need to run again,” Robinson said. “It’s not simply the net change in the size of population of the district before and after redistricting, but the total number of individuals affected by redistricting that needs to be considered.”
Currently, districts 2, 3, 4 and 5 meet all requirements to remain as is, but what Little Falls decides in terms of its ward reapportionment could change that.
District 2, represented by Jeffrey Jelinski, consists of the city of Harding and Little Falls ward two along with Belle Prairie, Buh, Platte and Ripley townships. It has a population of 6,305, which is 497 less than the average per district.
District 3, represented by Randy Winscher, is made up of the city of Royalton and Little Falls ward one along with Bellevue and Little Falls townships. The district’s population of 6,785 is only 17 less than the average.
Both Jelinski’s and Winscher’s districts could be directly impacted by the Little Falls reapportionment plan.
“Currently, the city of Little Falls has three wards,” Robinson said. “They have to be equal and practical in population size. Ward three is 2,596, Ward two is 3,861 and ward one is 2,683. They need to balance that as best they can over the three wards to have equal representation within the city council.”
If the numbers change in the county districts that cover the city, based on Little Falls’ redistricting, that could also have a trickle down effect on county districts 4 and 5.
Currently, District 4, represented by Mike Wilson, consists of the cities of Buckman, Genola, Hillman, Lastrup and Pierz, along with Agram, Buckman, Granite, Hillman, Lakin, Leigh, Morrill, Mount Morris, Pierz, Pulaski and Richardson townships, has a population of 6,764. That is only 38 away from the average of 6,802.
District 5, represented by Greg Blaine, consists of the cities of Bowlus, Elmdale, Flensburg, Sobieski, Swanville and Upsala, along with Culdrum, Elmdale, Parker, Pike Creek, Swan River, Swanville and Two Rivers townships. It has a population of 6,493; 309 less than the average.
Even as it sits right now, there are only so many options the County Board has in regard to its own redistricting plan — not even factoring in the Little Falls situation.
“Because District 1 is over by 181, it doesn’t mean that you can just scoop 181 out of population,” Robinson said. “You have to move a city or township. You have to go by some lines that are there.
“In order to balance with the least impact, you can’t look at Darling (Township),” Robinson continued. “If you were to move Darling, Randall would be hanging out by itself, and you can’t do that because they have to be compact. If you were to move Randall into District 5, that would still meet the requirements of compact, contiguous. If you look at those numbers for the city of Randall, it would bring District 1 where it needs to be and then District 5 would remain under the 10% threshold.”
Ultimately, it will be up to the County Board to figure out the new boundaries. While it can have plans in place and know certain directions it wants to go, nothing can be finalized until after Little Falls’ job is done.
Blaine said, what he took away from the discussion, was that there was a lot of work that needs to be done. However, the County Board can’t do much at this point. Given the time crunch, Robinson suggested the County Board keep a finger on the pulse of what the city is considering so that it is ready to publish a plan as soon as the Little Falls City Council approves its plan.
“There’s no way that we could wait until the city is completely done and then us scramble within a short amount of time and then have that ready to be published for three weeks, hold a hearing and adopt a resolution,” Robinson said. “My suggestion would be for moving forward, I’ll be in contact with the city of Little Falls.”
“We don’t really have much of a choice,” Jelinski said. “The bottom line is, we have to wait for whatever the city of Little Falls is ultimately going to do. We have to virtually react and then come up with our plan based upon what they bring forward.”