Another chance to curb the partisanship in redistricting

talk is cheap
Not "we the parties." Pixy.org.CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

The first three words of the U.S. Constitution are “We the People,” while the words “political party” are absent in the document. Yet, by 1812, elected officials were actively shifting power from the people to the political parties through redistricting. And since 1812, every ten years, the parties continue to decide which voters will matter through the people’s maps. Enough. It is long past time to tap into our constitutional roots and to recenter the people in our governing processes. This should not be a controversial idea in an election cycle filled with calls to make every vote matter and every voice heard; chants in favor of redistricting reform should not be conspicuously silent when gerrymandering suppresses the voices of voters, too. 

Last year a coalition formed to exercise a right to direct democracy established in Nevada’s constitution by running a ballot question to create a redistricting commission. The Fair Maps Nevada coalition worked with Nevadans across the political spectrum who agreed that fair redistricting centers the people, not the political parties, in our democratic republic. Unfortunately, while Nevada instituted many new processes to protect representative democracy when the pandemic hit, no new processes were offered to protect our right to engage in direct democracy. So, our ballot question failed because the only method available to gather signatures would have potentially exposed petition signers to the virus. 

Fortunately, Sen. Ben Kieckhefer is running our redistricting reform ballot question as a Senate Joint Resolution in the 2021 legislative session. Through this assistance we are gaining an opportunity to debate the merits of our proposed amendment, but only if we are not silenced again. It is one thing to disagree with someone, it is something else to silence your opponent. A committee hearing provides us the ability to be heard under equitable conditions.

Briefly, our amendment is short and to the point.  We argue that our current legislative processes, which includes a mandate to complete all the state’s business in 120 days and the power to suspend the Open Meeting Law, does not center We the People in redistricting. Instead, this arrangement is ripe for centering one political party over the other.  Our amendment, therefore, makes redistricting independent of a legislative process that lacks the time and transparency required to ensure constitutional outcomes. 

Second, Nevada’s strict single-subject rule forces amendments to be as uncomplicated as possible. So, we opted to replicate the checks and balances mechanism found in many of our governing systems. None of us assumed it would be possible to remove partisan factions from the redistricting process, so instead, we included three political categories of redistricting commissioners and set them up as balancing powers. 

The amendment tasks the majority and minority leaders in the state Senate and Assembly to each pick one person for the redistricting commission. This translates into two Democrats and two Republicans and all that goes into picking those commissioners. Instead of creating an application process, which could discriminate against categories of applicants, we built in knowledge that the Democratic base will expect diverse commissioners and the Republican base will demand equal rural representation. These four commissioners will then select three commissioners who are registered non-partisan or with a non-major party.  Currently, non-partisan and independent affiliated voters comprise almost 30 percent of our voting population, yet they lack a role in our redistricting process. 

Under our amendment, the redistricting process must proceed in the open with the public empowered to not just fact-check commission maps, but to also submit maps using the same census data as the commission. The commission will be constitutionally required to follow all federal laws and court rulings to produce fair maps, which is not required right now. And lastly, the final redistricting maps must include a ‘yes’ vote from at least one nonpartisan/independent commissioner to become our official maps.  

If, after our amendment passes, the political parties would like to include an application process for placing Nevadans on the commission, that is legislatively possible, but it will add an extra layer of process and procedure. 

We are only asking for an ability to make the case for redistricting reform that will once again center We the People. This should not be so controversial coming out of an election cycle full of calls to ensure every vote counts and every voice matters. Thank you, Sen. Kieckhefer for giving us this opportunity to be heard. 

Sondra Cosgrove
Sondra Cosgrove is the executive director of Fair Vote Nevada and a history professor at the College of Southern Nevada.