It’s too early to know whether Crow Wing County will see changes to its political districts with the 2020 census data, but one possible scenario would see the entire county board of commissioners up for reelection next year.
Administrative Services Director Deborah Erickson gave commissioners a glimpse Tuesday, July 20, of the timeline and procedures associated with the redistricting process, a once-every-decade occurrence by which new U.S. Census data is used to adjust boundaries for federal congressional districts, along with state and local lines.
County boards are tasked with redrawing commissioner district boundaries within their counties to help ensure equal political representation. A number of factors play into whether lines must be redrawn, including population growth or decline in a particular area and how the state Legislature chooses to approach redistricting for federal and state districts.
Most cities and townships — along with all school districts — in Crow Wing County elect representatives at large, meaning everyone living within that jurisdiction votes for all members of the elected bodies. They could see changes to voting precincts depending on whether state or federal boundaries shift, but otherwise, will not need to engage in redistricting in depth.
The city of Brainerd is an exception to that rule, with council members representing different geographical areas of the city. County commissioners also each represent a specific area of the county.
Erickson said commissioners may face a tight timeline to create a redistricting plan and present it to the public, particularly amid delayed release of data gathered from the U.S. Census due to COVID-19. At this point, only state-level data is available from the count, with more granular population data expected by the end of September.
"And like many things, the county is the last piece of the puzzle. Everybody else gets to put their puzzles in first, and then we come along and do our part with that."
— Deborah Erickson, administrative services director
The state Legislature must have its plans completed by Feb. 15, 2022, and if they’re unable to reach an agreement, the matter must go before a court, possibly condensing the timeline further. Precinct and city redistricting takes place next and must be completed by March 29, 2022, or within 60 days of legislative redistricting. County redistricting is last to occur, shaped by decisions made by these other bodies, and must be completed by April 26, 2022, or within 80 days of legislative redistricting. Counties are also required to publish these changes three weeks in advance of a public hearing.
“You can see how tight that time frame is going to be from the beginning of the year,” Erickson said. “The biggest key piece is that legislative and congressional redistricting because nothing can occur the layers down until that happens. And like many things, the county is the last piece of the puzzle. Everybody else gets to put their puzzles in first, and then we come along and do our part with that.”
It won’t be until next spring, Erickson said — just weeks before the candidate filing period opens for the 2022 elections — that two county commissioners will know whether they’ll need to run again, two years earlier than anticipated. The seats occupied by commissioners Steve Barrows, Bill Brekken and Rosemary Franzen are already set to appear on the 2022 ballot, but those occupied by commissioners Paul Koering and Doug Houge weren’t originally scheduled for election until 2024.
Erickson said there’s a chance commissioners won’t need to make any changes to county districts, but given the known population growth in Crow Wing County along with any potential changes the Legislature might make, it’s more likely than not things will shift somewhat.
“I don’t want to hold out hope that you’re going to be in compliance, because I think there will be adjustments to legislative lines and I think there will be adjustments to population shifts that will cause you to be imbalanced,” Erickson said.
Considerations in redistricting include following voter precinct lines and achieving districts that are contiguous, regular in form and as compact as possible. The majority of the districts may not have a minority of the population — meaning the commissioner districts with the three smallest populations must together combine for a majority of the county’s population.
There’s also a 10% rule when it comes to district populations. When the county’s most up-to-date population figures are released this fall, that number divided by five would establish the average number of residents expected in each commissioner district. The actual population of those districts cannot deviate more than 10% from that average.
For example, the 2019 population estimate places Crow Wing County at 65,055 people. Using this figure means each commissioner district would have an average of 13,011 people, and could be no more than 1,301 people above or below this figure in size.
Diving into even more potentially head-spinning math, commissioners must only stand for a new election if there’s a 5% shift in voters between districts. Taking this same example, 650.5 people would represent 5% of the 13,011 average for each district. If the combined total of voters shifted into or out of a commissioner district exceeds that 5% threshold, a special election would be required. Then, with all five commissioners on the ballot, it would need to be determined who would serve two-year terms and who would serve four-year terms to ensure staggering of elections again in the future.
Following the 2010 U.S. Census, Crow Wing County made slight changes to its commissioner districts, moving the cities of Manhattan Beach and Fifty Lakes from District 2 to District 5. These shifts did not prompt new elections.
Erickson said the next steps are for county staff to participate in self-paced training and familiarize themselves with a redistricting guide from the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office. County officials will also begin to engage city and township leaders to discuss their timelines. Redistricting efforts are expected to cost anywhere between $12,000 and $17,000, mostly due to publishing costs as well as voter notifications.