Precinct lines in Presidio and Marfa will shift as commissioners court begins redistricting process

MARFA — The Presidio County Commissioners Court convened this past Monday to begin the process of redistricting its precincts, a project undertaken every 10 years as local officials review the latest census data. The 2020 Federal Census was late, thanks in part to the pandemic, throwing the Texas State Legislature into a chaotic special session and putting pressure on local governments to expedite the process.

This year’s numbers were scheduled to be released on April 1, but were not formally announced until October 1. In Presidio County, candidates hoping to run for office in the March primary elections — which include two seats on the commissioners court — can file starting on November 13. The race is on to complete the redistricting process as quickly and fairly as possible so potential candidates can register in the correct precinct.

Stan Reid of Austin’s Allison, Bass & Magee law firm has been touring West Texas for weeks, helping some of the state’s most rural and sparsely populated counties redraw their precincts. He was present at Monday’s meeting with an interactive map of the census data so commissioners could see the numbers, census block by census block, and help them draw their own boundaries.

Reid put it bluntly: “Some people live out here because they don’t want to be counted,” he told the court. “There’s no question there’s an undercount.”

The census numbers reflected a county-wide population decline of 21.6%, a figure that officials in Presidio quibbled with. “For now, we need something that will work with the numbers that we have,” said Precinct 4 Commissioner Buddy Knight.

The main challenge of Monday’s meeting was shifting enough of Knight’s constituents — whose Precinct 4 currently covers most of the city of Marfa and far northwest Presidio County — to make up for a gap in Jose Cabezuela’s Precinct 3, which covers northwestern Presidio city, Ruidosa and Candelaria. Reid and the commissioners worked clockwise, starting in Marfa and making their way around the map.

As of 1876, the Texas State Constitution requires that each county have four commissioners who work alongside a county judge. The process for deciding which commissioners represent who got a lot more specific in 1968 when the Supreme Court ruled in Avery v. Midland County that it was a violation of the 14th Amendment’s Unequal Protection Clause to have wildly different population counts between precincts.

Before 1968, there was one commissioner representing the city of Midland with a population of about 67,000; Midland county’s three other commissioners represented distinct rural areas each with populations under 1,000. While the Avery ruling recognized that rural constituents were often more directly impacted by county business than their urban counterparts — for example, highway maintenance and property taxes fall under county jurisdiction — it was unconstitutional to apportion county commissioners based on anything other than population. That’s how the contemporary numbers game was born.

Today, commissioner precincts can’t legally deviate from each other in population by more than 10%, and to avoid litigation, it’s best to keep that number as close to zero as possible. In Presidio and Brewster counties, that has required many Big Bend county commissioners to do double duty, representing long skinny precincts that cover a small portion of a populous area and a huge swath of mostly unoccupied land reaching down to another “south county” population center.

Many census blocks in Reid’s presentation were empty, making what he referred to as “clean lines” impossible to achieve. By law, precincts must follow obvious boundaries like survey lines, highways, or waterways; pair that with the population distribution laws, and it can be a complicated process. “This isn’t easy stuff,” Reid said as those gathered in the courthouse gazed at the maps.

By the end of Monday’s meeting, a few blocks on the far southern boundaries of Marfa were added to Commissioner Brenda Bentley’s district, who then lost a few blocks of her small toehold in northeast Presidio city to Commissioner Eloy Aranda’s Precinct 2. The northwestern edge of Presidio shifted to add population to Cabezuela’s Precinct 3.

Presidio County residents will have the opportunity to weigh in on these new boundaries at public hearings scheduled this upcoming Monday in Presidio at 10 a.m. in the county annex and in Marfa at 3 p.m. in the county courthouse before commissioners vote whether to adopt the boundaries on Monday afternoon.

Redistricting the commissioners court could lead to shifts in other types of districts. Voting precincts will be next on the list, in advance of quickly approaching spring primary elections. Compared to commissioner precincts, voting precincts follow similar boundaries but are smaller, designed for the convenience of the voter. There are currently seven voting precincts in Presidio County.

Precinct 1 Justice of the Peace David Beebe also raised the possibility of redistricting judicial precincts. Presidio County’s two judicial precincts are a lower priority because they aren’t a legislative body, so laws about representation don’t apply. Still, Beebe — who will step down from his post in December — hoped the county would consider shifting boundaries to make the job a little easier for his successor.

Currently, Precinct 1 oversees the bulk of traffic tickets and accidents on Highway 67, about 500 a month. Beebe proposed that cutting 67 in half at Elephant Rock, near Shafter, could more equally distribute the burden between the two precincts. County Judge Cinderela Guevara suggested waiting until after the legislative districts were in place to discuss those possibilities further.

Despite the time crunch, the commissioners took the time to field concerns from Presidio city officials that reflect an ongoing conversation about the efficacy and accuracy of census counts in a region as vast and rugged as the Big Bend. The county will move forward with redistricting despite the fact that many city and county officials suspect a significant undercount in southern Presidio county — one estimate proposed a gap of almost 1600 people. The city of Presidio is seeking assistance from the Texas State Demographer to challenge the census count, a process that will begin in January. The Big Bend Sentinel’s coverage of that process is ongoing.

Technically, the county can change its boundaries more frequently than every 10 years, and it is possible to use metrics other than the census to determine boundaries, though Reid has never personally seen it done. “Any time you step out of that box, you’re taking a risk,” he warned.

Presidio Mayor John Ferguson was present at Monday’s meeting, and gave the final draft of the new boundaries a personal thumbs-up. “I think the city, census-wise, was significantly undercounted, but what we have here, I’m okay with it,” he said.