Baldwin County’s accelerated growth could soon impact the way its residents vote for their representation on the County Commission in the 2018 election cycle.
Population data provided by the county shows the disparity is the greatest in its Eastern Shore and South Baldwin districts. The data shows District 2, which encompasses unincorporated areas along the Eastern Shore, has 68,390 residents. District 1, which covers north Baldwin County and the largest geographic area, has 24,948 residents, a difference of more than 43,000. District 4, which covers unincorporated areas south of Foley to the beach, has 57,433 residents, compared to just 31,494 in central Baldwin County’s District 3.
The population disparity is cause for alarm, according to some commissioners, who believe the numbers are unfair for candidates seeking election in the 2018 election cycle in which all four district seats will be on the ballot. Commissioners discussed redistricting at a recent work session. The county will likely have to ask the local legislative delegation to act to redraw its district lines in the next regular session.
“The numbers are so disparate at this point that it is patently unfair as far as a candidacy issue,” Commissioner Chris Elliott (District 2) said. “There are three times as many candidates in District 2 as there are in District 1, and those numbers have likely changed even more since 2010. I think there is a fundamental fairness question.”
Commission Chairman Tucker Dorsey (District 3) said the population disparity means there are fewer qualified candidates and less opposition in smaller districts at election time. Commissioners must live in their designated districts, but are elected “at-large” by residents countywide.
“Districts 1 and 3 benefit from not having as many people, so there is not as much opposition when candidates run,” Dorsey said. “I do like having the at-large districts, because I don’t feel like I have to arm wrestle the commissioners for certain areas in the county because we look at it as a whole. We have grown so much that it pushes and pulls on the equity for someone who wants to run for office.”
Baldwin County Probate Judge Tim Russell said the commission districts are “out of balance,” and the data shows District 4 accounts for roughly 37 percent of the county’s total population while District 1 registers at just 13 percent. Russell said he has heard from unnamed minority groups concerned the uneven districts will impact their ability to select qualified candidates to represent them. According to Russell, two of the minority groups have told him in confidence that if nothing is done to fix the issue, they may take legal action.
Commissioner Frank Burt, elected from the county’s least-populous District 1, said anyone is allowed by law to run for any commission seat provided they move to that district before they are installed. He disputed the idea that district population limits the number of candidates who are qualified to run.
“If you study the law I believe you will see that if you are a county resident and qualified, you can live in Fort Morgan and still run in District 1,” Burt said. “But prior to taking office you have to move to District 1. District 1 may not have the same population, but it is the largest geographic district by far.”