Baldwin County has a huge population discrepancy between its four County Commission districts and there’s nothing the County Commission can do about it. That was the opinion of the attorney general’s (AG) office in 2017, when then-Commissioner Tucker Dorsey asked a series of questions about the commission’s authority to redistrict itself.
Section 11-2-1.1 of the Code of Alabama allows most counties in the state to do just that, “following the release of any federal decennial census,” particularly one which results in a population discrepancy of more than 5 percent from one district to another. But according to Sonny Brasfield, the executive director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, the key phrase of the law renders it applicable to those counties with “single-member districts.”
Baldwin County, the fastest growing county in the state according to the 2020 Census, is one of just a handful in the state where commissioners are elected at large, by all voters in the county. Further, it is subject to a legislative home rule explicitly stating “nothing in this amendment shall be construed to permit the Baldwin County Commission to redistrict itself, except as provided by general law, or establish the number of commissioners or number of commission districts.” In 2017, the AG’s office concluded the authority for altering the district lines in Baldwin County would require an act of the Legislature.
The lines were not altered then, and even though many of the state’s other counties are altering lines currently, Baldwin County is not. Baldwin County Cattle & Fair Chairman Sonny Hankins raised the issue during a commission meeting in September, noting the district lines haven’t been altered in more than two decades.
According to the 2020 Census, District 4 Commissioner Skip Gruber has some 67,000 constituents in his district, the unincorporated areas south of Summerdale, while District 1 Commissioner Jeb Ball has fewer than 15,000 constituents in the unincorporated areas north of Spanish Fort.
But the AG’s opinion also advised that because all qualified electors in the county are able to vote on “any and all candidates” for the commission, “the commission district lines are not required to be redrawn based on population.”
Brasfield told Lagniappe Baldwin County’s population disparities do not disenfranchise voters, but the practical effect is incumbents are less likely to have political challengers in underpopulated districts, while overpopulated districts are likely to produce more challengers.
“The statute forces residents to run against someone in their own district, but in the end, everyone in Baldwin County gets to vote for all four seats,” he said. “It’s not my place to argue for how commissioners should be elected, but with countrywide elections, there is an argument to be made that your constituency is the entire county, rather than a single district. And that’s the debate that occurs when communities talk about shifting from one methodology to another.”
Mobile County, which elects its three commissioners to single-member districts, is redrawing its district lines even though the population remained relatively flat over the past 10 years.
According to Director of Public Affairs Sharee Broussard, “after each U.S. Census, the Mobile County Commission is required to redraw district lines to reflect population shifts found through the census report and ensure the county commissioners represent as equal populations as possible.”
Broussard said although Mobile County’s population only slightly increased from 412,992 in 2010 to 414,809 in 2020, “the population has shifted west and south.”
“The proposed maps have been created and we’re working on preparing public notices in advance of the commissioners’ vote,” she said.
Similarly, the state’s second-fastest-growing county is also redrawing its district lines.
“The population of Madison County grew 15.9 percent from 2010 through 2020,” according to Jennifer Gordon, director of commerce and external affairs for the county. “Madison County has six County Commission districts and a County Commission chairman that is elected on a countywide basis. Ideally, each district would have a population of 64,692, plus or minus 5 percent, but the actual numbers are affected by several factors, all of which are considered before changes will be made.”
There, commissioners held a public input meeting as early as September and have scheduled another for Dec. 9. The Madison County Commission will likely vote on a final district plan in January 2022, Gordon said.
“Evaluations of population and demographic changes are necessary to ensure that each County Commission district has about the same number of people and that districts are reflective and representative of the electorate,” she said.
In Lee County, Probate Judge Bill English said even though all their districts are within 5 percent population variance, they are redistricting anyway.
“We are not technically required to but because we fall within the range, we felt it would be better to go ahead and do it,” English said, noting Lee County also redrew its lines in 2010. “We try real hard to make them equal.”
During a brief discussion of the issue in September, Baldwin County commissioners seemed split on the need for redistricting. At least one, District 2 Commissioner Joe Davis, expressed interest in creating a fifth district. But a spokesperson for the county confirmed the commission cannot take it upon itself to do so. The Baldwin County Legislative Delegation deferred comment to State. Rep. Steve McMillan, who said he is completing a draft redistricting plan.
“It’s a little tricky, because it’s so far out of whack as far as population, it increases the odds somebody might be opposed if they are representing 70,000 in their residence district,” McMillan said. “But we’re trying not to change the commissioners from their existing residence districts.”
McMillan said legally speaking, he believes the county’s districts are still fair to voters, but they may not be fair to candidates. It’s worth noting former District 1 County Commissioner Frank Burt was reelected eight times over a period of 30 years before he was defeated by Ball in the Republican primary in 2018. But neither Ball nor Gruber had democratic challengers on the general election ballot in 2018, although the Democrats who ran against Billie Jo Underwood and Joe Davis received no more than 24.76 percent of the vote.
Still, McMillan would not say whether the county’s redistricting would be on the Legislature’s regular session agenda in February.
“If it’s going to be done, it has to go through the Legislature because we’re the only ones who could do it,” he said.
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