An effort to place a ballot question creating an independent redistricting commission on the 2020 ballot will have a second chance at life after a federal judge agreed to extend a June deadline to turn in signatures for the petition under “unique factual circumstances” brought by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In an order released on Friday, federal District Court Judge Miranda Du partially granted the request of Fair Maps Nevada to extend the deadline to collect signatures for the petition, which needs to garner 97,598 signatures by June 24 to make it on to the ballot. Attorneys for the group previously said it had collected around 10,000 signatures before Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered nonessential business shutdowns and other social distancing directives in mid-March.
Du noted that the order would not automatically qualify the measure for the ballot, where it must pass twice in subsequent elections to become part of the state Constitution. But she said not extending the deadline, especially in light of the pandemic, would violate the group’s constitutional rights which she said were not outweighed by any additional or expedited work that it would require of county or state election officials.
“As a matter of common sense, Plaintiffs will not be able to get their initiative on the ballot in November without an extension,” she wrote in the order. “And they may not even with an extension. But because they certainly will not get their initiative on the ballot without an extension, they would be irreparably harmed if the Court did not issue a preliminary injunction here.”
Under the order, the June 24 deadline (established under state law) is considered null and instead reverts to the constitutional deadline of 90 days before a general election, which is August 5. The parties in the case could also agree to a “reasonable accommodation” on an extension.
She wrote in a footnote that if it were up to her, an extension corresponding to the precise length of time the stay-at-home order has been in effect “seems the most reasonable.”
But Du did not allow the group’s other request: to require the secretary of state’s office to accept electronic signatures as valid for the petition, as opposed to those gathered in-person.
Du wrote that it would “take some time” to set up and roll out a process for signature collection and verification, and that the purpose and construction of the state’s laws on requiring in-person signatures were “narrowly tailored” to prevent voter fraud and thus survived legal scrutiny.
Regardless, the order breathes new life into the effort to amend the state’s historical redistricting process, which involves the drawing of congressional and legislative district maps and is typically left up to the Legislature.
The Fair Maps Nevada group filed its initial paperwork to qualify a change to the redistricting process in November 2019, led by organizations including the League of Women Voters of Nevada and the Brennan Center for Justice. The ballot question would create a seven-member redistricting commission — appointed by members of the Legislature and not allowed to have prior political experience or have been a lobbyist — charged with drawing district map boundaries.
Because it was filed as a constitutional amendment, backers needed to collect 97,598 signatures by June 24 to place the measure on the ballot, and then have it pass in two election cycles to become part of the state’s Constitution. The initiative would require approval of the new maps to come no later than July of 2023, and in future census cycles no more than 180 days after the release of census data.
But the group filed the federal lawsuit in early May asking a federal court to extend that June 24 deadline by at least six weeks, as traditional signature-gathering methods have been all but halted during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although rural and urban county clerks and election officials opposed extending the deadline over process concerns, Du wrote that in this case, the constitutional violation of the group’s rights outweighed any severe inconvenience” facing election officials.
“The Court does not find severe inconvenience a compelling government interest given these extraordinary circumstances,” she wrote.