Lawmakers told redistricting will demand special session in 2021

redistricting projection
Partial screengrab of an interactive map showing population changes in Nevada and how they affect political districts.

The Nevada Legislature will need to call a special session next year to finalize redrawing its political districts, a task that was scheduled for completion during the planned 2021 Legislative Session but is now on a delayed timeline because of the coronavirus pandemic.

If the state doesn’t voluntarily hold a special session, it will be at “significant risk” for a lawsuit and court intervention, state attorneys told lawmakers Wednesday.

Nationwide shutdowns prompted by COVID-19 forced the U.S. Census Bureau to slow or halt operations, which involves extensive door-to-door outreach to homes where residents fail to complete the census survey on their own. The Census Bureau has extended the deadline for completing the census to Oct. 31. That in turn has pushed back the date when states expect to receive the population information they need to redistrict. They were originally expected to receive their finalized data by the end of April, which would fall during Nevada’s 2021 Legislative Session. States now expect to receive the info by the end of July 2021, possibly almost two months after the legislative session ends.

Legal analysts from the Legislative Counsel Bureau told lawmakers on the interim redistricting committee that the timing poses a problem for Nevada, where the state Legislature only meets every other year.

Congressional races specifically are beholden to the established principle of “one person, one vote” — meaning the populations of political districts are supposed to be as close to equal as possible. States are given “safe harbor” from legal challenges on this principle during the years between decennial census counts. However, delaying the redistricting process for more than a year after receiving the information would make the state vulnerable to a challenge on the constitutionality of the general election in November 2022.

Asher Killian from the LCB told lawmakers a court would likely order the Legislature to convene a special session or impose a court-drawn interim redistricting plan.

LCB attorneys recommended lawmakers preempt what would be a losing legal battle and plan to hold a special session to finalize redistricting. Staff noted that “a substantial amount” of prep work could be completed during the 2021 session using preliminary data, which could reduce the length of the necessary special session.

Nevada is no stranger to court involvement on redistricting matters. Courts were forced to intervene in 2011 when the state was last tasked with redistricting. At that time, Democrats controlled the state Legislature and passed two redistricting maps that were then vetoed by Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval. That year, Nevada gained its fourth congressional district, which is currently represented by Rep. Steven Horsford.

The stakes aren’t as high at the federal level this time around. Nevada is not expected to gain (or lose) any congressional seats as a result of the 2020 census.

But uneven population growth across the state will impact the makeup of state assembly and senate districts, as well as the Board of Regents districts, which are redrawn at the same time.

Maps posted to the state’s recently launched redistricting website use 2018 population estimates to show what districts will likely be affected. Growth in Clark and Washoe counties has outpaced growth in rural parts of Nevada.

Nevada Senate Districts redistricting map
Map showing Nevada Senate Districts population deviation, using 2018 population estimates. (Source: Legislative Counsel Bureau Research Division)

One map of Nevada Senate Districts lists the population of Nevada Senate District 9 (located in the southwest part of the Las Vegas metro area) as 171,895 people. That is approximately 32,000 more than the “ideal population” that would exist if all 21 state senate districts had the same population, or a 19.03 percent deviation from the ideal. On the opposite end, Nevada Senate District 2 (located in the central part of the Las Vegas metro area) has approximately 16,000 fewer residents than is ideal — a 13.4 percent deviation. Both districts are currently represented by Democrats — Assemblywoman Melanie Scheible and Assemblyman Mo Denis, respectively.

A similar map of Nevada Assembly Districts shows even greater deviations from ideal.

Redistricting is a complex process that involves balancing the goals of creating equal population distribution and equitable treatment of minority and cultural groups, all while taking into consideration municipal and physical boundaries. It is a process that is rife for controversy, particularly when it comes to gerrymandering borders for political gain.

Democrats currently control the trifecta of state government — both houses in the Legislature and the governorship.

There is an effort afoot to change the redistricting process within Nevada. Fair Maps Nevada is proposing an amendment to the constitution to take the power of redistricting away from the Legislature and give it to an independent redistricting commission. That effort is embroiled in legal challenges from opponents and faces an uphill battle of gaining signatures in time, but organizers still hope to make it onto the 2020 general election ballot in November.

The interim committee on redistricting plans to meet again in August.

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.