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Nobody's redistricting anything this weekend

David Colborne
David Colborne
Opinion
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Ah, redistricting, that grand decennial American tradition during which politicians around the country demand better constituents and constituents around the country chant “gerrymander” at the top of their lungs while staring cross-eyed at maps drawn from seemingly arbitrarily generated shapefiles.

Gerrymandering is a pernicious problem in Nevada. Take, for example, this absurd district which, for reasons nobody can explain, combines Summerlin, the Paiute Snow Mountain Reservation, and the Fremont Street Experience into a boot-shaped polygon:

Source: OpenStreetMap

Or this district in northeast Nevada, which has random blocks carved out of it and is missing a chunk of Interstate 80, yet includes a stretch of railroad line for no apparent reason:

Source: OpenStreetMap

This district in northwest Nevada, meanwhile, is easily the most ridiculous by far.

Not only does it have several holes within it, it’s not even contiguous — if you look closely at the top-left portion of the shape, there are several areas within this district’s boundaries near White Lake which don’t connect to each other at all:

Source: OpenStreetMap

Before various city managers and council members send me angry, defensive emails — yes, I clearly kid. The first “district” is actually the City of Las Vegas, the second “district” is the City of Elko, and the third “district” is a map of the insanity inducing non-Euclidian municipal boundaries the Great Old Ones devised for the City of Reno to entrap Cxaxukluth, Outer God spawn of Azathoth, who was moonlighting as a municipal planner during the early 20th Century (or so I assume — it’s as sensible of a reason as any).

The truth is we live in a state, a country, and a world covered with irregular and somewhat arbitrarily drawn boundaries. There’s no reason to assume, just to pick on the boundary between Reno and Sparks for a minute, that residents on Shoshone and 9th in Reno have significant cultural differences from their neighbors on Cygnet and G Street in Sparks — they can see each other’s backyards much more readily than they can see either of their respective city halls. Even so, there are noticeable changes brought by the jurisdictional line — where 9th Street crosses into Sparks and becomes G Street, the road gets a little wider, the pavement gets a little darker, and the curbs are squared instead of rounded.

If you’re drawing legislative district boundaries to represent that neighborhood, there are at least two directions you could go and good arguments for both. On the one hand, you could draw a boundary around the entire neighborhood and justify your choice on socioeconomic or perhaps even racial or ethnic lines. On the other hand, you could split the neighborhood down the middle, just as Reno and Sparks do, and justify that decision under the logic that one legislator could specialize in delivering their constituents’ concerns through Reno’s government and the other legislator could specialize similarly with Sparks’ government.

Both approaches would be logically defensible. Whichever approach is chosen, however, would result in a line being drawn somewhere — a line guaranteed to conceal at least as much detail as it retains. Whether it preserves neighborhood character at the expense of an important jurisdictional boundary or vice-versa, at least one key detail must be sacrificed. Boundaries fundamentally divide, not to meet natural needs but to meet human needs — needs for reassuring simplicity, order, and predictability in a complicated, disordered, chaotic world.

Consequently, the fundamental question behind every redistricting exercise is: Which humans are going to get which of their needs met this decade, and which needs (and which humans) will be inevitably sacrificed to meet those needs?

I bring this up not to cynically embrace and dismiss gerrymandering in equal measure, but to place gerrymandering and redistricting more generally within its proper context. There is no platonic ideal way to define legislative boundaries. Whichever way you think might be ideal prioritizes some values and, by extension, some people over others. Consequently, arguments over redistricting are fundamentally arguments over which values, and, by extension, which people will be prioritized over others. That’s why we must take the sturm und drang of redistricting seriously but not literally — redistricting arguments are soldiers, not searches for truth, between diametrically opposed people with diametrically opposing values, each of whom want their voices heard and, by extension, all opposing voices extinguished.

Put more directly, if you think Republicans truly care about the integrity of inmate census data, or you think Democrats truly care about the political presence of Latinos and African-Americans, I regret to inform you that they do — inasmuch as such things benefit the political fortunes of their parties, respectively, and not a constituent farther.

That’s why, no matter what happens, we know how this weekend’s redistricting exercise will go. Democrats, who control the legislative and executive branches of state government, will not willingly cede control through cartographic fiat. At the same time, no matter how fair or unfair Democratic-drawn maps might be to their political fortunes, Republican donors and primary voters don’t reward restraint nor bipartisanship — they reward conflict, the more expensive and drawn out the better, and nothing converts political conflict into immensely profitable fundraising pitches quite like lengthy legal challenges.

Which is ironic, really, considering how little Republicans usually respect trial lawyers, but I digress.

That’s also why we don’t need to take this weekend’s session too seriously — redistricting was getting decided in the courts the instant the election results were posted last November. All we’re watching this weekend is both parties’ opening arguments.

Let’s see how they’re shaping up.

Will a Democrat represent Congressional District 2 this decade?

No.

I know I have some friends and readers who don’t want to hear it (sorry, Washoe Dems), but it’s true. Democrats drew Congressional District 2 to be their “dump stat” — they’re giving it up in exchange for three very winnable congressional races throughout the rest of the state.

This is smart for two reasons. 

First, Rep. Amodei may not be any Democrat’s preferred congressman, but he’s no Paul Gosar, Marjorie Taylor Greene, or Lauren Boebert, either, even if he’s not above pandering in that general direction from time to time. Republicans could run far worse candidates for congressional office in this state — and absolutely have. A comfortably re-electable Republican whose ambitions are tempered by the comparative safety of his current position, one who possesses a nonexistent filter between whatever he’s thinking and what he’s saying to reporters, is not the worst of all possible outcomes for Democrats in Northern Nevada. 

If you disagree, I will politely but firmly remind you that Adam Laxalt was sniffing around Rep. Amodei’s seat a couple years back.

Second, Nevada isn’t a Democratic stronghold. Republicans may lose more often than they win here these days, but Nevada had a two-term Republican governor less than four years ago and Republicans controlled both elected branches of partisan government less than a decade ago. Republican strength in this state derives from rural Nevadans and formerly Californian Republicans who move to Washoe County. Even when Democrats win the presidential majority in Washoe County (which they have in every presidential election since 2008), they don’t win congressional majorities — Patricia Ackerman, despite being the best-funded opponent Rep. Amodei faced in years, lost Washoe County by more than 5,000 votes. 

Is it possible to draw four winnable congressional districts for Democrats in Nevada? Technically, perhaps, with a bit of imagination, but even if such districts somehow survived a court challenge (good luck explaining to a judge in Carson City why Reno and Sparks voters should be in the same district as Democrats in Clark County), doing so would make all four districts far more competitive than Democrats should be comfortable with.

Assembly Democrats have heard enough from Nye County in particular.

I’m not the only writer who’s derived some joy from calling out Pahrump’s nonsense in this publication — John L. Smith has found considerable inspiration in Las Vegas’ least favorite neighboring bedroom community. I never expected the sentiment to extend to the crew drawing Assembly districts for Democrats, however.

Over the past decade, Pahrump has served as both the tail and the dog for Assembly District 36, which otherwise has few sources of population within it. Consequently, Pahrump’s pathologies have been entertainingly well represented in the Assembly — like, for example, when Pahrump elected brothel owner Dennis Hof’s decomposing corpse to the Legislature in 2018. 

Apparently Assembly Democrats have had quite enough of Pahrump’s nonsense — not that I can blame them. Instead of giving Pahrump an Assembly seat through which to vent its electoral spleen, the Democrats want to split Pahrump in two — the southern half of the valley would remain in Assembly District 36, along with a few people in the extreme north and west portions of Las Vegas who are already in the district, while the northern half of the valley would get to share an assemblyman with... Elko.

If I lived in Elko, I’d be absolutely livid about that, for the record.

Oh, and just in case anyone in Nye County felt they were being treated with benign neglect instead of outright hostility, Assembly Democrats also propose to keep Tonopah split between two Assembly districts — only instead of leaving the bulk of Tonopah within Assembly District 32, they propose to make most of Tonopah part of Assembly District 38, while the southeastern portion of Tonopah currently within Assembly District 36 would become part of Assembly District 33.

I bet Dr. Titus is really looking forward to driving to the Mizpah for campaign events next year. Maybe she can ask Alexis Hansen for gas money.

Remember Storey County Sheriff Gerald Antinoro?

Normally I have a firm “don’t read the bottom half of the internet” policy. If I didn’t violate it by reading the comments tagged on the Democrats’ redistricting maps, however, I would’ve missed these gems from Storey County’s rather notoriously expensive sheriff, who cost his county $250,000 when his sexual harassment lawsuit was settled.

Take, for example, his comment regarding the Democrats’ proposed congressional district map:

For the benefit of Sheriff Antinoro and those who might be inclined to agree with him, according to the most recent census data, Nevada has 3,104,614 residents. Of those, 2,265,461 live in Clark County and 486,492 live in Washoe County. That leaves 352,661 Nevadans who don’t live in Nevada’s two most populous counties.

Nevada’s population divided four ways is 776,154. It is less than halfway to mathematically possible to give rural Nevada “a true voice,” even if Republicans drew the map for the embattled sheriff instead.

His well-informed and carefully researched opinions regarding redistricting didn’t end there, however. He also had thoughts about the Democrats’ proposed state Senate and Assembly maps, too… well, more accurately, he had the same thought about both maps, but you have to zoom in on Lyon County in the Assembly map to find the same thought copied and pasted there:

Storey County, for reference, is currently represented by Senate District 17 and Assembly District 39 — the Democrats’ maps would move Storey County to Senate District 16 and Assembly District 40.

To be clear, Storey County’s 4,104 residents are going to be the junior partner in any legislative district they aren’t explicitly drawing for themselves. I can appreciate that going from Sen. Settelmeyer to Ben Kieckhefer’s ghost can be jarring (though Settelmeyer will be termed out next year anyway), as can going from Asm. Wheeler to Asm. P. K. O’Neill. I’m aware that O’Neill, unlike Wheeler, has never promised to (yes, facetiously, sure, I know) bring slavery back if his constituents demanded it. I can understand why that might be disappointing for a well-armed elected official with a history of sexual harassment. I can also understand why O’Neill’s silence regarding Storey County’s peculiar institution may cause the county’s chief law enforcement official to assume he doesn’t represent Storey County’s interests.

I just can’t understand why Antinoro would remind anyone he still exists and retains both political and legal power. Quietly serving his final term in anonymity was working quite well for him, I thought.

Republicans have given up on the Assembly.

It’s only natural for Nevada Republicans to assume that, if Democrats get to play amateur cartographer, they should get a turn, too. Why not? Mapmaking is fun — it’s coloring for grownups.

When the minority party draws their own maps — maps which everyone knows won’t have a snowball’s chance in Laughlin of ever becoming reality — the minority party usually uses the opportunity to demonstrate to their supporters what redistricting could look like if they were in power instead. This usually requires a fair amount of imagination, starting with the necessary flight of fancy of the minority party possessing a controlling interest of the levers of institutional power.

The Republican maps were, for the most part, no exception. They’d like another consistently competitive congressional seat, please, and if the state Senate had a decent shot at getting split down the middle between the two parties under the right conditions, that’d be great, too. As for the Assembly, well… Republicans would like to spot the Democrats three more safe seats than the Democrats are currently asking for, effectively guaranteeing a Democratic majority for the next ten years.

Yes, I get it — the goal is to keep the Democrats under the two-thirds threshold needed to pass significant tax increases in this state. That means Republicans need 14 Assembly seats, which is slightly more attainable when you’re starting with 11 safely Republican seats than the 10 Republican seats Democrats opened with.

Even so, is that the limit of Republican ambitions and imagination for the Assembly — one additional safe seat? Really? That’s the best they could come up with?

I’m almost starting to feel a little bad for them.

Almost.

David Colborne has been active in the Libertarian Party for two decades. During that time, he has blogged intermittently on his personal blog, as well as the Libertarian Party of Nevada blog, and ran for office twice as a Libertarian candidate. He serves on the Executive Committee for both his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is the father of two sons and an IT professional. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at [email protected]

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