Thoughts turn to lawsuits, redistricting reform after Democrats’ unpopular maps approved

By: - November 17, 2021 6:00 am

Gov. Steve Sisolak signs Senate Bill 1 and Assembly Bill 1 of the 33rd Special Session. The bills contain the updated political maps Nevada will use for the next decade. (Photo: Governor’s office)

The Nevada State Legislature on Tuesday concluded its once-a-decade responsibility of redrawing political boundaries. But the issue is far from over, as legal challenges are likely and frustrations are deep after a divisive special session where Democrats found themselves with virtually no supporters.

The Assembly passed Senate Bill 1, which contained the redrawn congressional and legislative maps, in a 25-17 vote. The bill passed the Senate earlier on a 12-9 party line vote.

Democratic Assemblyman Edgar Flores broke with his party and voted in opposition alongside every Republican.

Flores made no floor statement explaining his dissent and could not be reached for comment after the vote.

Flores’ vote was the lone indication that anyone inside the Democratic caucus was displeased with the maps put forth. Although being secretive about key pieces of legislation is common, members of the majority party were more tight-lipped than usual throughout the five-day redistricting special session. During the Senate vote, only Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro gave a brief statement in support of the maps. Only Assemblywoman Brittney Miller, who chaired the redistricting committee, spoke during the Assembly vote.

When Democratic leaders commented or issued statements, they defended their maps as representative of Nevada’s growing and diverse population. Nevada is the third most diverse state in the country, according to 2020 Census data.

But much of the opposition to the maps centered around how the Hispanic or Latino population was divided between districts. Flores is a member of the Nevada Hispanic Legislative Caucus and represents Assembly District 28 in east Las Vegas. More than two-thirds (67.6%) of his constituents are Hispanic.

The final approval of the maps came after five days of fierce opposition from Republicans, who raised myriad concerns over partisanship and the splintering of communities but had little power to slow or stop the process since the bills required only a simple majority to pass. A progressive coalition of community groups also strongly opposed the maps.

Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak announced Tuesday afternoon that he had signed SB1, as well as Assembly Bill 1, which passed unanimously through the legislature earlier in the special session and contained updated Board of Regents maps and allows for the adjustment of 2022 judicial candidate filing deadlines. Sisolak did not hold a public signing, as he often has for high-profile bills.

“These maps reflect Nevada’s diversity and reflect public feedback gathered throughout the legislative process,” his brief statement read.

The approved maps are designed to be used for the next 10 years of elections. They are expected to increase the competitive advantage for Democrats overall.

Legal challenges expected, but from who?

While Republicans could bring a legal challenge themselves, the effort will likely have more gravitas if independent, non-partisan groups or individuals are involved.

Partisan gerrymandering isn’t illegal federally or in Nevada. Observers and insiders expect lawsuits to be filed federally on the grounds of potentially violating the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits racial and language group discrimination in elections.

“I know the state Republican party has had several social media requests and fundraisers for redistricting,” said Senate Minority Leader James Settelmeyer. “I look forward to seeing what (they) will do.”

Meanwhile, ACLU of Nevada Executive Director Athar Haseebullah issued a brief statement on Twitter, saying: “In the weeks/months ahead, various groups including ACLU of Nevada will assess the legality of approved maps.”

Silver State Voices Executive Director Emily Persaud-Zamora in a statement after sine die expressed “disappointment” in the approved maps, particularly for splitting up 300,000 Latinx residents currently in Congressional District 1 and pitting “working-class Nevadans and affluent Nevadans against each other by combining their neighborhoods into one district.”

Her statement continued, “Each of these communities has different needs, and their districts ought to be drawn so that their representation may reflect that fact. Redistricting happens once every 10 years. If we don’t resolve disparities in representation now, we will be unable to correct these injustices for at least another decade.”

When asked directly on Monday whether the group would consider challenging the maps in court, Persaud-Zamora did not rule out the possibility.

“No strategy is completely out of the toolbox,” she said.

Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson acknowledged he expects a lawsuit to be filed.

“I do,” he said. “I mean, not by design, not by desire, but I think that’s the nature of things across the country.”

Frierson continued on to say he believes the maps the Legislature approved are legally defensible: “We’ve strove to advance maps that would survive that type of challenge. And that’s our hope.”

An earlier legal concern about Nevada’s compliance with an anti-prison gerrymandering law was largely addressed during the special session. Prior to the session, the ACLU of Nevada warned the state was putting itself at legal risk because only half of the state’s more than 11,000 prison inmates had been counted as residents of their last known addresses instead of the facilities they are incarcerated at. That redistricting law was passed by the Legislature in 2019.

But on the second day of the special session, the Legislative Counsel Bureau announced that an additional 1,600 addresses had been identified and verified, in large part because the Departments of Motor Vehicles and Health and Human Services stepped in to assist the Department of Corrections.

That eleventh hour effort boosted the percentage of inmates who were reallocated to above 65%, says Holly Welborn of ACLU of Nevada. It’s expected that some inmates cannot be reallocated, primarily because their last known address was out of state.

Welborn says their analysis of the prison inmate reallocation data found Nevada to be valid and in line with other states who made the transition to banning prison gerrymandering.

“It’s kind of the growing pains of the process,” added Welborn. “Hopefully we can be like the state of Maryland where their first go around was a 60% validation rate and then this year’s was 95%. That’s what we have to strive for.”

Renewed calls for an independent commission

The Democrats’ proposed maps were released less than a week before the 33rd Special Session, which was unofficially announced on a federal holiday (Veterans Day) and officially proclaimed just hours before it began. While a public website was available for people to submit or comment on map proposals, only two public hearings were held to solicit oral feedback, and nobody was made available to explain specific map choices that people had concerns about.

That lack of dialogue and transparency has renewed interest in a possible independent redistricting commission. It’s a model of redistricting that other states have embraced but that Nevada has barely touched on.

In advance of the 2020 election, a nonpartisan group filed their intent to obtain the signatures needed for a ballot question to create an independent redistricting committee. That effort was first stalled by a lawsuit and then ultimately died when it could not overcome the challenge of signature gathering amid the pandemic.

During the 2021 Legislative Session, Republican state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer sponsored a resolution that resurrected the concept, but it never received a hearing. (Kieckhefer has since resigned from his Senate seat and been appointed to the Nevada Gaming Commission.)

Also during the 2021 regular session, as negotiations were underway on a mining tax bill that needed bipartisan support, at least one Republican said they would vote for the new tax only if Democrats embraced an independent redistricting committee. But that possibility was never seriously considered.

Several Republicans in a press conference Tuesday indicated they would support an independent redistricting commission. Generally speaking, the minority parties within states typically do. Assembly Minority Leader Robin Titus has previously said she would sponsor it herself.

Sondra Cosgrove, who led the attempt at a ballot initiative first with Fair Maps Nevada and now with Vote Nevada, said the special session process illustrated the need to take the power of redistricting away from the Legislature and political parties.

Vote Nevada’s proposal for an independent redistricting commission includes language to require mapmakers adhere to the same non-partisan principles set by the court in 2011. Those principles included a low deviation rate, compactness and contiguity.

The proposal also specified that the independent redistricting commission would be subject to the state’s open meeting laws. The Nevada State Legislature exempted itself from open meeting laws.

Cosgrove and others who followed redistricting efforts at every level of the state noted other public bodies were far more transparent in their process.

Clark County School District, for example, held seven public meetings — one in each of their trustees’ zones — where people could view several proposed maps, ask questions of the hired consultant who had created them, and provide their feedback. The School Board also discussed maps during a public meeting and asked the consultant to create two additional maps based on community feedback. It was one of those additional maps that was eventually approved by the board.

“It wasn’t a long, drawn out process,” said Cosgrove. “They listened to the public.”

Clark County similarly held a public meeting attended by their hired consultant, though some community members were disappointed they only held one dedicated meeting.

Noé Orosco of Silver State Voices said the City of Reno was particularly responsive when it came to community involvement. When Silver State Voices approached the city to ask for an additional public meeting in a community center, the city listened and added one.

“They were very responsive,” added Orosco. “We were so thankful they were responsive and receptive to our feedback.”

Community advocates know redistricting at the legislative and congressional level is a highly political process with more moving parts than at the municipal level. Still, many were surprised by the extent to which they were cast aside and not included in the process.

“Normally we do have a pretty great relationship with legislators on both sides,” said Persaud-Zamora. “But, you know, this time? … There has not been a Democratic legislator who has reached out to us with our concerns.”

The exception, she added, was state Sen. Dallas Harris, who helped the coalition work through technical issues that were preventing them from uploading their proposed maps onto the legislative website.

“Beyond that there hasn’t been a Democratic legislator who’s reached out to us,” said Persaud-Zamora.

Republicans, however, reached out and invited the community groups to meet with their caucus to discuss maps.

“We met with them,” said Titus. “We looked at their maps. We showed them our maps.”

Settelmeyer also said he personally reached out to Nevada’s congressional delegation and had a conversation with Rep. Dina Titus, whose CD1 has been a point of contention in the new congressional map. CD1 will drop from having a 45% Hispanic population centrally located in Clark County to a 35% Hispanic population and a wider area that includes east Las Vegas, Henderson and Boulder City.

“I’m not going to sit there and divulge private conversations,” said Settelmeyer when asked what was discussed in his conversation with Dina Titus. “All of them are very concerned about maps. Some of them like some of the changes. Some dislike the changes. But all of them did agree that there were some interesting questions about communities of interest.”

A staffer at Titus’ congressional office submitted an alternate map prior to the special session, suggesting the longtime politician wasn’t completely on board with the proposed maps.

When asked Saturday whether the Democratic caucus had received feedback from Nevada’s congressional delegation, Cannizzaro sidestepped and replied only that they had “heard from a lot of different folks and had a lot of communication between all of our people.”

There had been efforts by Democrats at the federal level to pass a voting rights bill that required all states to use independent redistricting commissions. However, those efforts are largely seen as headed nowhere.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 10 states have a commission whose primary responsibility is drawing a plan for congressional districts, five states have advisory commissions that assist the legislature in the process, and three have backup commissions that come into play if the legislature cannot act. Other states keep the congressional map drawing to their legislature but use an independent commission just for state legislative 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. 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, three children and one mutt.