State Sen. Ben Kieckhefer asks a question during a presentation on the first day of the 31st Special Session of the Nevada Legislature in Carson City on July 8, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent, pool photographer)
A failed petition initiative aimed at curbing partisan gerrymandering will find new life during the upcoming legislative session.
Republican state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer plans to introduce a resolution to amend the Nevada Constitution to create an independent redistricting commission. The language is expected to mirror a citizen-driven initiative that failed to gather enough signatures to qualify for the 2020 ballot.
The redistricting commission resolution is one of a trio of “good governance” proposals Kieckhefer plans to push during the upcoming 81st Legislature, which is set to convene Feb. 1. The Northern Nevada lawmaker also plans to introduce a bill to create open primaries, as well as a bill to allow electronic signature gathering on citizen-driven ballot initiatives.
Kieckhefer had already planned to take up these efforts before the insurrection in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, but he said the events highlight the need for reform.
“The political polarization that has taken over our country is at best problematic and at worst dangerous,” he said. “Some structural things help increase that political divide. One of them is the political process for creating our political maps.”
The Nevada Legislature redraws its political boundary lines every 10 years, after the conclusion of the decennial census. In 2011 — the last time redistricting occurred — Democrats controlled the state Legislature but not the governorship, so the party’s redistricting plans were vetoed and the task eventually fell to a three-member special panel appointed by a judge.
This year, Democrats control both the legislative and executive branches, paving a clear path for legal partisan gerrymandering that could shape the next decade of political outcomes. The redistricting process is typically completed during the regular legislative session. But the timeline for this year remains uncertain due to coronavirus-related delays and the state may be forced to hold a special session sometime this year to complete the task.
Moving to an independent redistricting commission couldn’t happen overnight. It requires changing the Nevada Constitution, which means Kieckhefer’s proposed senate joint resolution would need to pass the Legislature in two consecutive sessions, then go before voters for approval.
Kieckhefer added it would be naive to think an independent redistricting commission would be entirely free of political influence but “to get it out of the hands of people whose self interests are primarily served would be a great first step.”
Getting politicians to essentially sign away their power is an uphill battle. Kieckhefer knows that.
“Elected officials are loath to change systems where they’ve had success,” he says.
Sondra Cosgrove, the College of Southern Nevada professor who led the failed citizen initiative last year as part of the League of Women Voters and the Fair Maps Nevada coalition, is realistic about the hurdles too.
But Cosgrove, who has since broken from the League and formed Vote Nevada, sees value in having the redistricting commission proposal go through the legislative process, even if doomed to fail.
It could bring attention to the issue and help Vote Nevada build a database of supporters who they might later call on to sign a petition, should they choose to file a citizen-driven ballot initiative. It will also force legislators to go on the record.
Voters have embraced redistricting reforms when presented to them, say national advocates. But getting the issue in front of voters often proves difficult. In red states, Republicans fight reform. In blue states, Democrats do.
Nevada’s effort last year faced expected legal challenges and unexpected pandemic hurdles. Judge Miranda Du extended the deadline for Fair Maps Nevada to submit the 97,500+ signatures they needed but declined to suspend existing rules on physically witnessing signatures on petition drives.
Cosgrove’s group had proposed using the state’s existing online voter registration system for signature gathering. Similar processes are used in other states. She called on Sisolak to allow it temporarily as part of his string of pandemic emergency orders but her requests were ignored.
Kieckhefer believes lawmakers should address the issue.
“We allow electronic signatures on every document that exists,” he says. “Petitions may be ready for that as well.”
Cosgrove believes allowing electronic signatures on petitions will give grassroots proposals the chance to qualify for legislative consideration or the ballot. Securing more than 97,500 physical signatures requires a significant amount of resources. For example, the two political action committees formed to support Clark County Education Association initiatives to raise gaming and sales tax had each raised $750,000, according to October required filings with the Nevada Secretary of State.
Nearly a third (31 percent) of Nevada’s 1.9 million active registered voters are either nonpartisan or registered with a third party, according to data from the Secretary of State. Democrats account for 37 percent of active registered voters. Republicans account for 32 percent.
Kieckhefer sees that as a problem worth fixing.
“People shouldn’t have to join a private club in order to have a voice in government,” he said. “That’s what closed primaries do. … If you don’t join the right private club then you have no voice.”
Nevada’s closed system allows only registered members of the party to vote in a primary. In cases where one political party produces no candidates and the other political party produces two candidates, the entire race is decided by one party. That happened in the 2018 Democratic primary between Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson and challenger Robert Langford. No Republican ran.
“It’s just a system that continues to push people apart rather than bring them together,” adds Kieckhefer.
In February 2020, Kieckhefer submitted an initiative proposal to the Secretary of State detailing an open primary system wherein all candidates would appear on the primary ballot and the top two finishers would advance to the general election. It’s similar to the structure for nonpartisan races across the state, except in the partisan races there would still be a R or D behind the candidates’ names.
At the time of the initiative filing, political commentators opined that an open primary would benefit more moderate Republicans who quietly worry they can’t make it out of a Republican primary but believe they could win a general. Kieckhefer is term-limited and cannot run for reelection when his state senate term ends next year.
Kieckhefer says he doesn’t see open primaries as more beneficial to the GOP. Instead, he says he sees that candidates would be required to be more responsive to a broader swath of the electorate.
“That’s not good for just one party,” he says. “The need to refocus on people over political parties is universal.”
He adds: “I’m hopeful we’re at a place where people want or are willing to focus on what we can do to make things better. These are things that we can do to help. They won’t solve the problems or divisions we face, but these are structures we’ve created and we should change them and make the system work more properly.”
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