Court battle, shutdown threaten ballot measure to curb gerrymandering

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Progress on a proposed ballot measure aimed at ending gerrymandering has already been delayed months by legal challenges, and now a new hurdle awaits proponents: gathering signatures during a pandemic.

Fair Maps Nevada is proposing an amendment to the state constitution to take away the power of redistricting from the Legislature and give it to an independent redistricting commission. The political action committee has until June 24 to collect the almost 100,000 valid signatures required in order to get their proposal onto the general election ballot this November.

Typically, the process of collecting signatures involves paid workers or volunteers approaching people in grocery store parking lots or at community events — accessing people in the places they gather.

“You can’t be standing in front of Smiths if we’re all supposed to be staying at home,” says Sondra Cosgrove, president of the League of Women Voters of Nevada, the organization pushing redistricting reform in all 50 states.

Nevada’s stay-at-home order is in effect until April 30. Gov. Steve Sisolak is expected this week to release details of his plan to reopen the state, but he has already suggested the state might open industry-by-industry rather than all at once. Even President Donald Trump, who has pushed for reopening the economy sooner rather than later, has issued a three-phased plan that guides states to roll back societal restrictions over a minimum of 42 days total.

Few expect a swift return to normalcy, and that poses a challenge for groups with looming deadlines. Political watchdogs have already predicted there will be fewer ballot measures than normal across the country due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But political groups are pushing forward and looking to adapt.

In Arizona, candidates running for state or federal office must gather signatures in order to appear on the ballot. They can use a state-run website that authenticates voters to obtain those signatures. In early April, ballot measure campaigns filed suit asking the court to order the state to allow them to use that same website for their ballots initiative signatures. Arizona’s secretary of state supported the request and told the court it could be done, according to The Arizona Republic. But on Friday, a Trump-appointed U.S. District Court judge rejected the request, writing the state’s constitution requires the collection of signatures to be in person.

A similar suit filed by other ballot measure campaigns is still pending with the Arizona Supreme Court, according to the Republic.

According to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, similar legal challenges are happening in Ohio, Montana and other states. In Oklahoma, the secretary of state paused their 90-day period for collecting signatures, writing in a letter that his office would resume the clock and calculate a new deadline once the state of emergency was lifted.

Cosgrove says Fair Maps Nevada’s attorneys hope Sisolak might consider doing the same here: “We’re looking at possibly requesting from him an extension to the deadline. We’ve lost six weeks from the stay-at-home order. Can he add on six weeks at the end?”

That request and other options have yet to be pursued, partially because Fair Maps must first resolve its ongoing legal battle. That battle, which began as soon as their intent to petition was submitted, is now at Nevada Supreme Court. Briefings should be submitted to the court within two weeks, with either a decision or an order for a formal hearing following that.

The suit, filed by a North Las Vegas pastor, focuses on the proposal’s “description of effect,” a 200-word statement attached that explains what the proposal would do if passed. Cosgrove describes the lawsuit as “frivolous” and designed to drain resources and run out the clock until the June 24 deadline.

Despite the legal headaches and the uncertainty of how the signature threshold will be met, Cosgrove says she is still “very hopeful” the redistricting question will appear before voters in November — and that it will be well received.

“I know if we have the opportunity to present our case to voters, I know they can be persuaded,” she added. “These are just technical hurdles to get over.”

Other petitions

The redistricting proposal is one of two petition-driven initiatives filed with the Secretary of State. The other is a proposal for a constitutional amendment to completely overhaul the Nevada Senate.

Ben Pennington, who filed the intent to petition, declined to be interviewed via phone by the Current but did say via email that he did not believe the initiative would get the signatures it needed to make it to the general election ballot.

“I’m not worried,” he said of his political effort. “Stopping COVID-19 and seeing all of Nevada recover is what I’m worried about right now.”

In addition to those two initiatives, there are four initiatives with a November deadline for obtaining the requisite nearly 100,000 signatures. If they are successful, the 2021 Legislature would have the ability to take up the issues and make the proposed changes in statute. If they decline or cannot pass it legislatively, the initiatives would appear on the 2022 ballot for voters to decide.

The Clark County Education Association is behind two of those petitions. One seeks to raise the Local Schools Support Tax (a sales tax) and the other would raise the gaming tax. Executive Director John Vellardita last week said the union was forging ahead on their plans for those initiatives despite the economic downtown. If anything, he added, the importance of education should be more apparent now than ever.

The other two initiatives focus on having open primaries and requiring parental notification before a minor has an abortion.

April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. April currently serves on the board of the Society of Professional Journalists Las Vegas pro chapter. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and three mutts.