Legislature readies itself for redrawing of congressional, state district maps

By: - September 28, 2021 6:27 am
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While a growing number of states have prohibited the use of partisan data in redistricting and established independent boards to conduct the process, Nevada is not one of them. (Photo: Nevada Legislative Counsel Bureau).

Nevada’s political districts are primed for a makeover.

It’s a process called reapportionment and redistricting. It happens nationwide once every decade, after the conclusion of the “complete count” census. Some key components of Nevada’s redistricting process fell into place last week, setting the stage for what may be a highly political process that will impact elections for the next ten years.

Legislative leaders have appointed members to an interim committee that will work out the initial details of redistricting and allow for public participation. Once their work is complete, the full Legislature is expected to convene in a special session to approve redrawn maps for the state’s four congressional districts, 63 legislative districts, and Board of Regents districts. No date has been announced for the special session.

The six-member interim committee is composed of four Democrats and two Republicans: state Sens. Fabian Donate (D-Las Vegas), Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka) and Roberta Lange (D-Las Vegas), and Assemblymembers Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno), Brittney Miller (D-Las Vegas) and Glen Leavitt (R-Boulder City). The members were selected by majority leaders in both houses.

The committee’s first meeting has not yet been scheduled, but no prolonged wait is expected.

“We are looking at nailing down a date and time for the first meeting within the next week or two,” said Legislative Counsel Bureau Director Brenda Erdoes in an email Friday.

LCB last week also launched MyDistricting, a web-based application the public can use to create their own political boundary maps or identify “communities of interest” — meaning areas that should not be split into separate districts because they share something in common.

Partisan possibilities

The theoretical goal behind redistricting is to ensure each political district represents the same number of people and that distinct communities, such as racial and ethnic groups, are represented. But the concept of ‘one person, one vote’ can quickly fall way to political gerrymandering.

While a growing number of states have prohibited the use of partisan data in redistricting and established independent boards to conduct the process, Nevada is not one of them.

That means Nevada Democrats, who control both chambers of the state Legislature and the governorship, have the power to redraw maps to benefit their party.

Unified power is something neither political party had in 2011, when the redistricting process was last undertaken. That year, maps were drawn by a court-appointed master panel after Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed maps approved by the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

Nevada gained a congressional seat after both the 2010 and 2000 censuses, meaning congressional maps had to be significantly redrawn. This year, the state’s 15% growth rate was not enough to gain a new congressional seat.

Still, there is plenty of room for partisanship.

One likely scenario, say political observers, is Democrats attempting to better their odds in Congressional District 3, which is considered a swing district and currently represented by Democrat Susie Lee, by moving Republican-heavy precincts into Congressional District 1, the deep blue stronghold currently represented by Dina Titus.

CD3, which includes the fast-growing southwest part of the Las Vegas metro area, currently has almost 80,000 more residents than is ideal, according to the updated census data. Meanwhile, CD1 needs approximately 73,000 more people to reach the ideal population level.

More immediate than its potential impact on election outcomes, the redistricting process also has some elected officials and hopefuls in political limbo, unable to announce campaigns until the redrawn maps confirm they are actually eligible to run.

“I still don’t know what I’m going to run for,” said Assembly Minority Leader Robin Titus (R-Wellington), who is eyeing a jump to the state senate.

Senate District 17 is currently represented by term-limited Republican James Settelmeyer. Titus plans on running for the seat if she can, but if her current district ends up nested inside a different senate district where an incumbent is running, she plans to run for re-election instead.

Republican Assemblyman Jim Wheeler (R-Minden), whose district is also currently nested inside SD17, is already campaigning for the state senate seat, though his emailed mailers do describe it as exploratory pending redistricting.

State legislative districts where the seated politicians are term limited are generally expected to be subject to more change than districts where incumbents will be running. Four state senators and three members of the assembly are currently termed out.

Still, with uneven growth and losses occurring all across the state, many notable changes could occur.

Nevada’s population grew by 15% over the past decade, but growth was concentrated in Clark, Washoe and Nye counties. Many rural counties saw their populations decline.

Seven of the 21 state senate districts now have more residents than is ideal. The largest deviation occurs in Senate District 9, which encompasses the southwest part of the Las Vegas metro area and is currently represented by Democrat Melanie Scheible. The district must redistribute more than a quarter of its 204,521 people to reach the ideal population size of 147,839.

 

Meanwhile, in the lower chamber, 14 of the 42 assembly districts deviate from the 2020 ideal population size by more than 10%, according to a report by the LCB. Eight of those have too many people; six have too few.

Ideally, each state assembly district should represent 73,919 people. Currently, populations of districts range from 60,829 in Assembly District 11, which includes part of downtown Las Vegas, to 104,755 in Assembly District 35 east of I-15 in the southern part of the Las Vegas metro area.

Renewed push for redistricting reform

Sondra Cosgrove, the executive director of Vote Nevada, hopes Democrats keep their maps fair and representative.

“They did awesome with fair maps,” she says, referencing the 2011 maps created by the court-appointed panel and the 2020 and 2018 elections. “Last time I checked they are in control. So why do they need to do anything?”

Cosgrove’s group and others are planning to analyze proposed maps in real time, using software and expertise from national academic groups focused on redistricting. She notes that national watchdogs are prepared to provide pro bono expert witnesses for groups who want to challenge redrawn maps on the premise they are not accurately being represented.

Assemblywoman Titus is hoping the redistricting process stays out of court but acknowledges it could be a possibility, especially if anything “flagrant” occurs.

“Things have to change, of course,” she says. “We expect it to change, but we want it to be fair.”

Titus isn’t sure the current maps can be considered fair. She points to the fact that Lyon County, where she resides, was divided in 2011 with the creation of Congressional District 4. Half of the rural county remained in Congressional District 2, which is currently represented by Republican Mark Amodei. The other half was lumped into CD4, which runs south all the way into Summerlin and the northern part of the Las Vegas metro area.

“How does that make sense?” she asks. “That’s not representative.”

Cosgrove last year led a failed effort to qualify a ballot initiative to create an independent redistricting commission. She attributes the failure to make the ballot to legal challenges brought by people who want to keep partisanship gerrymandering legal and the pandemic, which made collecting physical signatures difficult.

Republican state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer sponsored a resolution that mirrored the failed initiative attempt but it was never scheduled for a hearing. (Kieckhefer is now termed out.)

Titus says she plans on reintroducing redistricting reform at the next session.

“It doesn’t matter (which party) is in charge -- ours or Democrats,” she added. “I want a fair process in the state. We need one to get trust back in the system.”

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April Corbin Girnus
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. 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 two mutts.

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