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2020 US Census may be flawed, but county must align population equally between precincts, judge says
La Salle County’s population of 6,886 is unequally distributed among its principal four precincts, an issue brought home to commissioners Monday, November 15, the day on which they were required to make a decision on new district lines.
Tallies provided by the 2020 US Census indicate that the ideal distribution of the population should be 1,389 residents per precinct, taking into consideration prison populations on the outskirts of Cotulla and Encinal, apartment complexes near IH-35, and dense pockets of residency at smaller complexes, and those living at the Las Palmas Nursing & Rehabilitation Center.
The 2020 US Census shows that 1,454 people live in La Salle County Precinct 1; 1,205 live in Pct. 2; 1,301 live in Pct. 3; and 1,315 live in Pct. 4. Those numbers, according to the county government, represent a variance of more than ten percent from one precinct to the next.
Consultant Rolando Rios was hired by the court to examine La Salle County’s demographics and provide options for a redrawing of precinct lines.
Rios told commissioners Monday that the only changes they should expect to make lie within Cotulla city limits, where shifts of one or two streets from one precinct to another will bring the variance to within ten percent of each other.
La Salle County Judge Joel Rodriguez said he believes the county must adhere only to the numbers provided by last year’s census, even if commissioners feel their populations were under-counted.
Commissioners concurred with the county judge that an apparent discrepancy between population tallies of 2010 and 2020 is a strong indicator that hundreds of La Salle County residents may not have been counted last year.
Ten years ago, La Salle County reported a population of over 6,800.
Population figures used in the redistricting plan do not include occupants of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Cotulla Unit, located near the high school campus on FM 624, southeast of downtown Cotulla.
“There are six hundred people in that jail,” the county judge said. “If you add the jail, the numbers are going to be way off.”
Altogether, the county is listed as having 1,389 occupants of detention facilities.
Both Rios and the county judge put some of the blame for the discrepancy between 2010 and 2020 on the coronavirus pandemic, but stopped short of indicating how many people should have been recorded as living in the county last year.
Comm. Ayala resisted the redraw of the precinct lines this week, ultimately voting against the motion that moves some downtown boundaries from one precinct to another, saying he had been given the impression by Rios that the county’s numbers were well balanced between commissioners.
“That was in 2019,” the county judge said. “Now we have the benefit of the 2020 census. Everybody is supposed to be pretty close in population numbers. If we left it alone, where would we be? We are off by over ten percent.”
Judge Rodriguez said the county may continue finding fault with the census figures, and pointed to areas where people may have been living in temporary housing last year.
“There were RV’s in some of those lots when they did the census,” the judge said, showing vacant properties in the downtown area. “That doesn’t mean they’re still there. That’s who was there when they sent the census people to go from door to door.
“If you add the prison population, it will distort your numbers because you are adding people who can’t vote here,” the county judge said, but noted that the precinct lines should only be viewed as a distribution of the population, not a tally of actual voters.
“I got an email from the secretary of state saying today is the deadline,” the county judge said, urging commissioners to make a decision.
“You can make changes after this election cycle,” Rios told commissioners when the elected officials hesitated to make a motion approving the new county precinct map.
“And every year after that?” Comm. Niavez asked.
“No. Only once,” the county judge said.
Later in the same meeting, however, Rios told commissioners that they may “re-district as many times as you want within a decade.”
“These districts are for the next election,” the consultant told the court.
“I think these numbers are wrong,” Comm. Niavez said after the court reconvened from a lunch break.
“What do we know about what people put in a census?” Judge Rodriguez asked. “If someone’s kids are in college, did they list them living here?”
“Federal law says we have to use the US Census to decide who gets power and who gets money,” Rios told the court. “You can’t have separate censuses. Imagine if the city of Los Angeles had its own census, and New York City had its own. It would be chaos.”
Boundary changes proposed by Rios include moving a portion of downtown Cotulla out of Comm. Ayala’s precinct, a decision he said would lose him more than sixty voters.
“We have to move some streets around,” the county judge said. “I don’t think anybody has any choice. You have to break it according to the census, not by who’s voting. That would be gerrymandering. You’re thinking of voting, but this is aligning of the people.”
The motion to approve Rios’ plan for the boundaries, which draws precinct lines through downtown Cotulla along principal thoroughfares and eliminates a zig-zag of city blocks dating to 1990, was made by Comm. Niavez, supported by Comms. Alba and Ramirez. Comm. Ayala voted against the decision. The motion passed without an alternate proposal.
Detailed maps of the redrawn boundary lines will be made available by the county government for voters in the downtown Cotulla area to examine and determine in which precinct they will be voting during the 2022 primary elections. Changes will take effect along and parallel to Main Street and at the southeastern edge of the city near the Nueces River.
Rios’ so-called Plan A was the districting map approved by the commissioners and makes no changes to the final tally of residents in Pcts. 3 and 4, although some boundaries have been shifted.
The county’s redistricting moves a portion of South Main and Front streets between Goft and Thornton out of Pct. 2 and into Pct. 3. A portion of Kerr and Stewart streets between Veterans Park and Medina Street is shifted to Pct. 2 from Pcts. 1 and 4. Two blocks of the city between Main and Market streets from Carrizo to Goft streets are moved into Pct. 4 from Pcts. 1 and 3.
There are no changes to precinct lines in the sparsely populated outlying areas of the county.
“This brings us to a 9.48-percent variance, within the acceptable limit,” the county judge said in a brief interview Tuesday. “It is closer to the ideal population distribution.”
The tally for the precincts now shows 1,392 living in Pct. 1 and 1,267 living in Pct. 2.