Strange bedfellows emerge in opposition to Democrats’ redistricting scheme

By: - November 14, 2021 5:42 am

Lawmakers after a joint committee on redistricting. (Photo: April Corbin Girnus)

Opposition to Nevada Democrats’ proposed congressional and state legislative district boundary lines came on strong Saturday as lawmakers held the first public hearing and received direct input on the political maps that could be used in elections for the next decade.

The proposed congressional and state legislature maps were heard in a joint committee hearing Saturday. The maps, which are included within Senate Bill 1 of the ongoing special session, were subsequently advanced out of the Senate committee on a party line vote.

Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro acknowledged that SB1 will be amended but stressed the importance of moving the bill forward. Lawmakers are hoping the special session will be as short as allowable under the legislative rules currently in place.

Few people testified in support or neutral of the proposed maps during Saturday’s hearing. Testimony was overwhelmingly in opposition and made strange bedfellows of progressive groups and the Republican caucus, who each have concerns about communities of interest being split and partisan gerrymandering.

Democrats’ proposed maps would expand the party’s political advantage in state elections. At the congressional level, it increases the number of registered Democrats in what have been the state’s two swing districts, CD3 and 4. At the state legislative level, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Princeton Gerrymandering Project, the Democrats’ proposal would create only three competitive districts in the senate and five in the assembly. Princeton says they would expect Democrats to benefit with a 15-6 split in the senate and a 29-13 split in the assembly. That would potentially leave Democrats with a supermajority and eliminate the need for bipartisan support on bills raising revenue.

In 2018, Democrats came close to achieving that holy grail of power, securing a supermajority in the assembly but falling one seat shy in the senate. Notably, Democrats lost one state senate race by a mere 24 votes. In 2020, Democrats lost ground. Republicans flipped additional seats, leaving the majority party two seats short in both chambers.

Groups raise concerns about Latino bloc

Groups like Battle Born Progress and Mi Familia Vota, which are typically seen as aligned with the Democratic party, strongly opposed the proposals. Specifically, they are concerned about the Latino population centrally located in the Las Vegas metropolitan area being carved into three different districts, thereby diluting their collective voting power.

“This should be a non-partisan process,” testified Annette Magnus, executive director of Battle Born Progress. “This is not a time for partisan bickering. Our arguments are not about one party over the other. Contrary to popular belief we do not work for any party. We side with reality and the community in this.”

“Never did I actually imagine that I would be testifying in the negative on this particular issue that’s really near and dear to my heart and to the many organizations and community members that we’ve been listening to for the last year,” began Emily Persaud-Zamora, the executive director of Silver State Voices, “but here we are.”

She continued, “What we’ve heard overwhelmingly from community members is that they’re not happy about this process and they’re not happy about the end results of maps, especially with congressional districts.”

Persaud-Zamora said the group submitted their own maps to try and keep ethnic and racial communities intact and not mix “dramatically different income levels and competing interests” the way they believe the Democrats proposal does.

Democratic leaders in statements have defended their map proposals, arguing they increase opportunities for minority representation by keeping sizable populations in multiple districts, as opposed to stuffing them all into one. With Latinos in particular, the proposed maps would put the Latino population at between 21.2% and 35.5% in each district.

In one statement Democratic legislative leadership noted that, within their proposals:

  • Twenty-nine of 63 proposed legislative districts are majority non-white, an increase from only seven districts in 2011.
  • Proposed maps include 29 legislative districts where Hispanic or Latino Nevadans make up greater than a quarter of the population.
  • African-Americans make up greater than 25% of the population in five proposed legislative districts.
  • Asian-American and Pacific Islanders will make up greater than 25% of the population in five legislative districts, an increase from one in the 2011 maps. Assembly District 8’s AAPI population will be 34.3% Asian and 3.2% Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander.

Republicans also called attention to the Hispanic population shares within the Democrats’ maps. The GOP caucus released alternative maps that at the congressional level create one almost-majority Hispanic district and at the state legislative level create more districts with Hispanic populations above 40 or 50% than the Democrats.

Democrats were quick to rebuff their opposing party’s proposals, saying they violate the Voting Rights Act by putting too many people from protected racial and ethnic groups into specific districts.

“Racially motivated packing results in a terrible misrepresentation of the growing diversity of this state, it is bad public policy, and it is flatly illegal,” read a joint statement attributed to leaders in the Democratic caucus. “It should be thoroughly rejected.”

GOP objects over rural splits, partisanship

Republican lawmakers are also critical of the Democrats’ maps for dividing counties and municipalities. One guiding (but not legally required) principle adopted by many during the redistricting process is an emphasis on keeping together existing political subdivisions such as counties, cities or townships.

For example, in Nevada, each state senate district nests two assembly districts within it. That makes it easier for county election officials by reading the number of ballots they have to create. It also makes it simpler for residents to identify who their representatives are.

Assembly Minority Leader Robin Titus, who isn’t on the redistricting committee but spoke in opposition testimony, presented a poster board zeroing in on an unusual carveout involving her rural community of Smith Valley, which the Democrats want to divide between two congressional districts. Titus called it “the most egregious” instance she’d ever seen of splitting a community of interest.

She even pondered aloud whether it had been done with her in mind, as it leaves her primary residence in blue-leaning CD4 but the rest of her community — including a riverfront property she owns — in solidly red CD2.

Republicans pointed out that Democrats’ proposed maps split more of Nevada’s counties than the existing maps do. They also raised questions about compactness, competitiveness and deviation — that is, the percentage to which each district differs from the ‘ideal district size.’

The deviation levels proposed by Democrats’ maps fall within generally acceptable legal limits, said Legislative Counsel Bureau staff. Congressional districts must be as precise as possible and can only deviate by one person. Other districts have a wiggle room of up to 10%.

Despite prodding from numerous GOP lawmakers, Democrats were tight-lipped and provided little insight into why specific decisions, like the carving up of Smith Valley, were made. The Legislative Counsel Bureau, the nonpartisan staff of the legislature, presented the bill and proposed maps but could only answer technical questions. LCB does not take a political position on bills.

“Nobody here’s taking any ownership of (the maps),” said Titus. “Somebody was hired to do it but nobody can ask that person questions.”

Titus in an interview said it seems as if Democrats have resigned themselves to handling disagreements over the maps in court rather than attempting to work across the aisle.

Cannizzaro declined to name the consultants used by the Democratic caucus, saying only that “there are a lot of GIS consultants that have been working with all of us on this.”

She said the caucus is carefully considering input from Saturday’s hearing but declined to specify which of the feedback received was most likely to be amended into their proposed maps.

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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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