A politically active Las Vegas pastor has filed a lawsuit in an attempt to block a proposed ballot measure that would put the redistricting process in the hands of an independent commission instead of the Legislature.
The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in Carson City District Court by the Rev. Leonard Jackson. It claims that the description of the ballot measure’s effect — a 200-word summary legally required to be included on forms voters sign to help qualify the measure for the ballot — is “inaccurate” and “seriously misleading.”
The lawsuit argues that the proposed redistricting commission is not truly independent because legislative leaders could still appoint their preferred members to the group. While it excludes certain politically involved members — such as lawmakers or lobbyists — campaign volunteers might qualify, the plaintiff argued.
“The exclusions do not create independence because the appointments are still directly made by legislative leadership,” attorney Kevin Benson wrote in the complaint. “Thus the exclusions do nothing to ensure that appointees are insulated from political pressures, are not beholden to the legislative leadership, and do not stand to gain personally or politically from serving on the Commission.”
The proposal also does not propose a funding mechanism for the expensive and staff-intensive process of redistricting, the suit says. Because of that, the Legislature could influence the commission by allocating or withholding money from the group.
It also faults the petition for not establishing criteria for determining whether any given map is biased toward a particular party, and does not require the commission makeup to fairly represent the state’s racial, language, ethnic, gender or geographic diversity.
“All of the Commissioners could be white, male, wealthy residents of Las Vegas, for example,” the suit says. “This would leave all other Nevadans without any formal representation in drawing districts that, among other things, are supposed to keep communities intact, while also ensuring that minorities retain their political voice.”
Officials from Fair Maps Nevada, the multi-party coalition trying to advance the measure, pushed back.
“Every time an effort is made to level the playing field and bring equality to bear, there will be opposition from those that benefit from the status quo. This lawsuit is no different,” said Sondra Cosgrove, president of the League of Women Voters of Nevada, in a press release.
Language for the proposed ballot question was filed by Cosgrove earlier in November, and would have to be approved by voters in the 2020 and 2022 elections before it could take effect in 2023 (at the earliest). At least five states — Colorado, Michigan, Utah, Missouri and Ohio — will begin using a redistricting commission following the 2020 Census.
Jackson, the named plaintiff in the lawsuit, is the executive director of Faith Organizing Alliance, a Las Vegas-based multi-church civic engagement organization that has supported voter turnout efforts and opposed proposed voter ID laws. He is also an associate minister at First African Methodist Episcopal Church in North Las Vegas and was previously on the executive staff of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat.
Several recent proposed ballot questions have been stymied by legal challenges over issues with the “description of effect,” including a measure to repeal the 2015 Commerce Tax and another attempted constitutional amendment to ban “sanctuary cities” in the state.
Under the current system, lawmakers draw their own maps for new legislative and House districts every 10 years. The process is vulnerable to partisan “gerrymandering,” in which lines are drawn to reduce the opportunity that political opponents could gain a foothold in elections.
Districts can also be formed in ways that dilute the political power of minorities, or that reduce competition between political parties.
Getting a constitutional initiative petition on the ballot requires signatures from at least 10 percent of voters who cast a ballot in the last preceding election, including in all four of the state’s congressional districts. To qualify for the 2020 ballot, a total of 97,598 signatures must be gathered (a minimum of 24,400 from each congressional district) and verified by the secretary of state’s office as valid.
Petitions to amend the state Constitution can be filed on or after Sept. 1, and official signature gathering can begin that day. The last day to submit signatures is June 16, 2020.