The El Paso County Commissioners Court and the El Paso City Council are gearing up for the decennial task of redistricting political boundaries based on U.S. Census data — a move that could impact who voters elect to represent them for the next decade.
Boundaries are redrawn for local, state and federal entities every 10 years following the release of the census data.
The city and county are in the process of appointing members to their respective commissions that will establish new boundary maps.
“It can be very contentious, and there is a lot of back and forth and negotiating because the people on the committees or the commissions have their own ideas about where the boundaries should be drawn,” said Carmen Rodriguez, chair of the League of Women Voters local districting committee.
Rodriguez said her committee will independently develop map recommendations based on feedback from individual citizens, neighborhood associations and organizations so that there will be more transparency and to avoid gerrymandered districts.
“We try to advocate for our maps and why we think they are valid, and why we think they should be adopted,” Rodgriguez said.
Although El Paso’s population grew at a historically slow rate in the past decade, city and county election districts likely will change greatly for the next round of elections. Census results likely will show high growth in parts of East and Northwest El Paso, and population declines in the Central parts of El Paso.
Rodriguez said her group is interviewing members of the community in preparation of their recommendations to the city and county.
But the city and county are still months away from holding community meetings because of delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Census Bureau originally planned to deliver the redistricting data to the states by the end of March, but will instead provide the data by the end of September, according to city documents.
At the city level
The El Paso City Council must appoint members to its Districting Commission by Sept. 1. Each member of the council and the mayor will appoint one member.
City Rep. Cassandra Hernandez, who represents District 3, was a staffer for city representatives during the last redistricting process in 2010 and said she came away with valuable insight she’ll use this time around.
“In terms of lessons learned about redistricting, really public input and public participation is going to be vital and critical,” she said.
Hernandez said the city will need to be creative in getting the word out to the community during the ongoing pandemic and anticipates a hybrid of virtual and in-person meetings throughout the process.
She also said it will be critical that the right people serve on the commission but said El Pasoans should voice any concerns they may have about potential appointees.
“City Council really needs to find representatives who understand the identity of our districts and the cultural sensitivity, as well as the income brackets among some of these areas,” Hernandez said. That will help to avoid redrawing a district that only represents certain pockets of the area that may have higher levels of income.
City Rep. Alexsandra Annello, who represents District 2, said redistricting is a crucial way to empower neighborhoods and ensure that representation isn’t swayed in one direction or another.
“It’s very important that that’s not done at any level, but especially at the local level — I really think that drawing lines which help people that represent them is really the most important thing,” Annello said.
The city must follow federal and state guidelines for district plans that include maintaining identifiable geographic boundaries, containing communities of interest in single districts, avoiding splitting neighborhoods and containing whole voting precincts. The city must also maintain districts at approximately equal sizes. There can also be no retrogression in the ability of minorities to participate in the electoral process and no fragmentation of minority communities or packing of minority voters.
The commission will begin meeting twice a week once the census data has been released.
At the county level
El Paso County Commissioner David Stout led an effort to create an independent citizen advisory commission for the redistricting process.
“It’s going to be great for the county to really be able to take the redistricting process out of our own hands and put it into the hands of a more independent committee,” Stout said.
The commission will consist of 11 members appointed by the county judge and the four commissioners. The chair of the El Paso County Ethics Commission also will serve. Members will be tasked with developing the maps for the commissioners and justice of the peace precincts that will remain in place for 10 years.
“We’re a bit different than cities (in the sense that) we can create an advisory committee, but in the end, we as a commission still have to be the body that approves the maps,” he said.
Stout said there needs to be heavy public involvement.
“One of the main purposes that we wanted to do this here at the county is to make sure that there is no gerrymandering going on and to make sure that the process is non-partisan, that it’s not influenced by people like me or my colleagues,” Stout said. “It helps to make the process more transparent. It helps to make the process, I think, more credible.”
The commission will begin meeting in June.
For more information:
Visit the El Paso County Redistricting Advisory Commission website