Nevada judge strikes down independent redistricting commission ballot petitions

In two separate cases, the judge found that the petitions would create an unfunded mandate not allowed under the state Constitution.
Sean Golonka
Sean Golonka
Jacob Solis
Jacob Solis
Election 2024Legislature

A Carson City judge ruled Thursday that a pair of proposed ballot questions seeking to establish an independent redistricting commission are legally deficient and cannot be placed on the ballot.

A senior judge appointed to the case, Robert Estes, ruled in favor of the plaintiffs represented by Bravo Schrager and Elias Law Group, a pair of Democrat-aligned law firms, with Estes agreeing with their arguments that the petitions would violate the Nevada Constitution by creating an unfunded mandate.

They had argued the petitions — identical save that one that would have called for such a commission to redraw the state’s congressional and legislative maps in 2027 at the earliest and one that would have done so by the next redistricting cycle in 2031 — would violate the Nevada Constitution because they would create a new state body (an independent redistricting commission) without raising revenue necessary to pay for the expenses of the commission.

The success of the Democrat-led lawsuits, each filed on behalf of Las Vegas-based Democratic voter Eric Jeng, means preserving the Legislature’s control of the redistricting process, which Democratic lawmakers last used in 2021 to bolster their structural advantages in state legislative and congressional elections.

The organization backing the petitions, Fair Maps Nevada, began pushing the proposed ballot measures late last year — the third attempt by the group to put an independent redistricting commission before voters in as many election cycles. Efforts in 2020 and 2022 were unsuccessful. 

Sondra Cosgrove, a College of Southern Nevada (CSN) professor who has helped lead the ballot initiative process, told The Nevada Independent that she disagreed with the ruling about the latter petition, which would set up the independent commission to take over the redistricting process in 2031, when state lawmakers would next be required to redraw district lines after the decennial U.S. Census. 

Cosgrove said that petition would replace one funded body with another, arguing that the same funds used to support the Legislature during the redistricting process could instead be used to pay for the commission to carry out redistricting.

She added that Fair Maps Nevada had not yet decided on its path forward and whether it would appeal either or both of the rulings. A new petition that included language funding the commission could potentially pose new challenges, such as violating the single-subject rule for ballot initiatives, she said.

Cosgrove said the judge’s order in each case had not yet been released as of Thursday. The Carson City District Court clerk’s office did not respond to a phone call Thursday afternoon.

Supporters have argued that an independent redistricting commission would remove partisan biases from the redistricting process, undoing district gerrymanders that have minimized some voters at the expense of others in pursuit of maximizing partisan control of legislative bodies. 

Nevada’s electoral maps were last redrawn during the decennial redistricting process in 2021. However, under unified Democratic control of the Legislature and Gov. Steve Sisolak, those maps were drawn to maximize the number of competitive districts favoring Democrats in congressional and legislative races. 

The new maps led to a supermajority for Democrats in the Assembly and near-supermajority in the Senate in 2022, even as Republican Joe Lombardo bested Sisolak in the race for governor. A potential veto-proof supermajority is on the table again in the 2024 election, which could allow Democrats to stymie Lombardo’s agenda just two years after he issued a record number of vetoes

An analysis by Princeton University’s Gerrymandering Project gave Nevada’s congressional maps an “F” grade for partisan competitiveness, citing a “significant” Democratic advantage. The project found more subtle advantages in legislative maps, giving the state Senate map a “B” grade for a “slight” Democratic advantage and leaving the Assembly map ungraded. 

Historically, past Nevada redistricting fights have been defined by split control of state government. In 2011, Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval twice vetoed maps proposed by the Democrat-controlled Legislature, sending the redistricting process to a three-person panel of “special masters” to draw up maps eventually approved by a Carson City judge. In 2001, debates between Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn and the Democratic Legislature forced a special session to finalize new maps. 

Nationwide, about 19 percent of all congressional districts are drawn by independent redistricting commissions, compared with 21 percent of districts that are drawn by courts and 52 percent controlled by partisan legislatures, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice.


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