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Redistricting in Nevada: Why you should care about new district lines

Michelle Rindels
Michelle Rindels
Government
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As lawmakers prepare to draw new congressional and legislative district lines during a special session this fall, The Nevada Independent is bringing you this three-part series to explain why redistricting matters, how the process has historically worked and what to watch for in this year’s redistricting. This is Part I. Read Part II here and Part III here.

Nevada is about to embark on the once-a-decade process of drawing new boundaries for political districts in the state. 

It’s a highly technical, politically fraught process that can be manipulated for political gain through “gerrymandering,” the process of drawing districts that unfairly give one group a leg up in elections.

Nevada’s redistricting process usually happens during the state’s 120-day legislative session, but delays in collecting census data — the demographic information on which all district maps are built — meant lawmakers couldn’t complete their usual redistricting task. Instead, Gov. Steve Sisolak is expected to call a redistricting-focused special session this fall where lawmakers will  complete the job ahead of the 2022 election.

But why should Nevadans care about the redistricting process? Here are five reasons why it matters and why The Nevada Independent will be keeping close tabs on the outcome. 

It affects whether elected representatives’ policies reflect their constituents’ values

Why is it that the collection of elected leaders in a state isn’t always a good mirror of what the population looks like, in terms of race, gender and political preferences? Why have people from certain demographic groups never been elected to certain offices, and why are some groups underrepresented?

Some of that can be traced back to the redistricting process.

Here’s an example: The Texas voter base is closely divided among the parties — 38 percent Democrat and 41 percent Republican. But in the Legislature, there are 100 Republicans (56 percent) and 80 Democrats (44 percent) in office. 

The wider, 11 percentage point Republican advantage in the Legislature compared to the 3-point Republican advantage in the general electorate is likely the outworking of maps that — district by district — favor Republicans.

It’s a similar story in Nevada: Democrats control 26 seats in the 42-member Assembly, or 62 percent, and 12 seats in the 21-member Senate, 57 percent, but only represent about 34 percent of active registered voters in the state. Republicans make up another 30 percent, while nonpartisans and other non-major political parties make up the remainder.

The cumulative effect of redistricting affects whether certain issues ever see the light of day or whether actions taken by state lawmakers move far away from the political center. A solid Republican majority in the Texas Legislature might mean a steady stream of conservative policies prevails, and the overall effect is deeply conservative laws rather than moderate ones reflecting the swinginess of the state overall.

The same effect plays out in Congress, with district lines helping determine which party stays in control and what legislation moves forward.

It affects whether incumbents stay in office

Drawing district lines favorably for incumbents can ensure they don’t have to fight so hard to keep their seats. Rep. Susie Lee, for example, has to fight hard each cycle to hold on to Southern Nevada’s swingy Congressional District 3, which maintains roughly even voter registration between the two major political parties. 

What if Democrats in charge looped in more voters from Rep. Dina Titus’ safely Democratic, urban Las Vegas Congressional District 1, boosting the number of Democrats in CD3 and making the race easier — and cheaper — for the party’s candidate to win?

The process also can eliminate incumbents. What if an Assembly district was redrawn to exclude the officeholder’s home, relegating them to an adjacent district unlikely to elect them? Or what if a district’s shape is reworked and a candidate in a safe seat is suddenly in a swingy, vulnerable district?

Decisions about where to draw boundaries can have major political implications, with every change making a state lawmaker’s future a bit more or less certain.

It affects whether elected representatives reflect the demographics of their constituents

The boundary-drawing process tries to take into account what are known as “communities of interest,” or groups of people who share common social, cultural, racial, economic, geographic or other concerns. Ideally, redistricting will ensure those communities are meaningfully represented in governing bodies. That could include Jewish or Mennonite enclaves, a predominantly LGBT neighborhood or a historically Black neighborhood.

Depending on how it’s done, moving voters into different districts can dilute the power of minority voters. For example, if Latinos are gaining in numbers and political clout, their ability to elect a favored candidate can be weakened if they are split up among several districts. Keeping them together could allow that power to grow and make it easier for a leader from that ethnic group to rise to leadership.

Another concern is that breaking up tight-knit neighborhoods — such as dividing Las Vegas’s Chinatown among several different city council districts — could mean no councilmember feels  responsible to represent the needs of Chinatown residents.

The voting power of cohesive groups could also be diluted through “packing.” If Black voters have a significant presence in two Assembly districts, but they are redrawn so most of those residents are in just one district, their ability to hold two seats is diminished.

It affects how much power individual voters have

The process of redrawing boundaries every decade is intended to ensure each person’s voice and vote has roughly equal weight. For instance, the construction of housing developments in some Southern Nevada districts over the last decade has resulted in a population boom, meaning the power of each individual voter has been diluted relative to the voices of voters in districts that are staying stagnant or declining in population.

Drawing less-competitive districts can suppress turnout if voters believe they don’t have power to effect change. For example, Republicans may not be motivated to turn out to vote or elevate strong candidates in Congressional District 1, which is so heavily Democratic that Republicans are never expected to win it. Democrats who live in Congressional District 2 may feel discouraged because their candidates lose so consistently in the safely Republican district. 

It has historic resonance

Redistricting is a powerful symbol of the fight for voting rights. Courts frequently weigh in when maps are alleged to disenfranchise certain voters, especially those who have long been subject to discrimination.In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Shelby County v. Holder that certain states or counties with a history of discriminating against minority populations no longer needed to have their redistricting processes cleared by the Department of Justice. Some advocates are concerned that without that step, some discriminatory redistricting processes will proceed unchecked.

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