Less than one year since the first and only municipal election that will have used the current district layout, the Town of Windsor has begun its redistricting process with recently released U.S. Census data, as is required by state and federal law.
During a special meeting Sept. 27, the Windsor Town Council conducted the first of four public hearings needed to complete the process, which will likely see only minor changes to the existing four district’s boundaries.
Federal and state election law requires jurisdictions to redraw voting districts when new U.S. Census data is released. Although their advent is recent, the current districts were drawn using 2010 U.S. Census data.
According to the town website, “Every 10 years, districts must be redrawn so that each district is substantially equal in population. This process, called redistricting, is important in ensuring that each council member represents about the same number of constituents.”
Stephanie Smith, a consultant with law firm Best, Best & Krieger, who presented to the town council, outlined the goals of redistricting and provided a timeline for the process. According to Smith, after soliciting community input, the town will need to draw districts with equal populations (within 10% deviation from an ‘ideal district’ represented by an average of population over the four districts). Smith said Census data showed, “there has been some population shifting since the current maps were drawn.”
While districts two and three are close to the ideal district population of 6,595 people, with populations of 6,542 (-53, or -0.8%) and 6,382 (-213, or -3.22%) respectively, District Four is too large, with a population of 7,344 (+750, or +11.3). Smith said districts deviating from the ideal by over 10%, like District Four, were considered questionable from a legal standpoint. District One, with a population of 6,110 (-485, -7.3%), while significantly smaller than the other districts, is still within the acceptable range, for instance.
Other goals are to create districts that are contiguous, that is, have integrity of territory, and respect topography, geography and communities of interest. Communities of interest are defined as social or economically similar communities impacted by city policies.
The main community of interest in Windsor is the Latino population, by far the largest minority group. It was over claims that the Latino population was disenfranchised by the former at-large system wherein every Windsor voter was allowed to cast votes for each council seat, none of which had ties to geographical districts, that Windsor switched, under threat of lawsuit, to its current and controversial district-based system in 2020.
District-based systems are purported to increase representation among minority voters by creating minority-majority districts, or districts that may contain a geographical area in which a large portion of a minority population is concentrated. This, the logic would follow, allows for one seat more or less selected entirely by that ethnic group, whereas, in an at-large system, where each citizen casts votes for all five council members, the majority could theoretically select each council member.
According to U.S. Census data analyzed by Smith, however, the Town of Windsor is unable to create a geographical district that creates a majority of Latino voters in any of the districts as the population is dispersed more or less evenly throughout the town, rather than residing in a large ethnically defined neighborhood or part of town.
“It might be challenging to draw a minority-majority district,” Smith said. But Smith also said the law requires only that cities create minority-majority districts if possible.
“If you have the ability to create a minority-majority district, you must do so. But in looking at your distribution across your current boundaries, it’s a fairly even distribution,” Smith said. “I just want to point out that the Latino population is the largest minority population in your community. It is evenly dispersed throughout your community, so if we left the boundaries the way they are, they would be compliant with the Federal Voting Rights Act because they do not disenfranchise minority voters, because we don’t have the ability to create a minority-majority district.
According to the 2020 U.S. Census data, the Town of Windsor has a total population of 26,378, with 8,908 residents (33.7%) who identify as Latino. There is some deviation among districts, with the largest concentration of Latinos in District 1, in north Windsor, west of Highway 101, with 2,903 Latino residents making up 47.5% of the population.
That’s a difference of 1,261 Latino residents from District 2, north Windsor on the east side of Highway 101, which has a Latino population of 1,642 making up just 25% of the population. Districts 3 and 4 have Latino populations closer to the townwide average, with 2,345 Latinos making up 36.7% of the population and 2,018 Latinos making up 27.5% of the population, respectively.
This hearing was the first opportunity for members of the public to voice their opinions regarding how their neighborhood or community should be included in the geographical districts, although only one member of the public spoke and not specifically about her community.
Prior to the release of draft maps, a second public hearing will be held Oct. 25, just before a mapping tool is released to the public. Dec. 30 wil mark the deadline for the public to submit draft maps for consideration at the third public hearing, to be held Jan. 24. Draft maps will be published a week prior, on Jan. 17.
The redistricting process comes at a time when the current makeup of the town council, established under duress from threat of lawsuit in 2018, is uncertain. In the near future, the town could potentially do away with its district-based system entirely through a special election, making the districts currently being drawn obsolete. In another scenario, voters could decide to abolish the at-large mayoral seat in favor of an appointed mayoral position, which would require the addition of a fifth district, necessitating another redistricting process.
According to town staff, the cost of the current redistricting process is $47,150. The cost of a potential special election to change the at-large mayoral position to an appointed one could cost between $50,000 and $80,000. If the nature of mayoral selection were changed and districts were maintained, the cost of redistricting again would also be an estimated $47,150. A special election to dissolve the districts could be $30,000 to $50,000 for a regular election and $50,000 to $80,000 if done by special election.
The April 17, 2022 deadline to adopt and submit a map to the Sonoma County Registrar will come just five days after voters could abolish the at-large mayoral seat during an April 12 special election.
It’s unclear whether the town would have time to implement the changes prior to the November 2022 elections, or what exactly that situation would mean for the immediate makeup of the council.