The official results of the 2010 Census brought good news for Nevada. Because of our rapid population growth between 2000 and 2010, we have been allotted a fourth congressional seat, giving us more clout in Congress as well as another vote in the Electoral College.
But before all that happens, the Nevada Legislature has to redraw the lines of the three existing districts to make room for the new one. In fact, the Nevada Constitution mandates that the Legislature adjust the boundaries of all legislative districts after each census – not only for the U.S. Congress, but also for school boards, city councils, State Senate and Assembly, and a host of others.
This process presents a perfect opportunity for behind-the-scenes deal-making, which often results in gerrymandering: dividing a state into election districts that give one political party a “safe” majority. The natural tendency of incumbent politicians is to ensure that their party spends the least possible amount of effort and money to defend their seats in future elections, and Nevada is no exception. After the last census, redistricting led to many politically safe districts. According to Nevada Policy Research Institute, since the 2001 redistricting, only 17 percent of Assembly races and 9 percent of Senate races were competitive elections, which is pretty convincing evidence that partisan politics were involved.
When lopsided districts are drawn up to appease political interests, voters lose the power to choose. If I’m a member of Party A living in a district that has been gerrymandered to favor Party B, the boundary lines place most of my Party A neighbors in a district next door that’s safe for Party A. I’ll always be in the minority in my district, where my Party A candidate doesn’t have much chance of winning. Next door in the other district, Party B candidates will never have a fair chance of getting elected. An equitable arrangement would draw district lines on the basis of population, leveling the playing field and giving each party an equal chance of winning. Candidates would then have to present platforms that would appeal to the majority of voters in their district, not just to voters in their own party.
The 2010 census figures show that roughly 70 percent of the population lives in Clark County, which means that Clark should get one more Senate seat and one more Assembly seat in the next redistricting, both at the expense of rural districts that haven’t grown as fast. This sets the scene for a major battle in the 2011 Legislature pitting North against South, rural against urban, and Democrats against Republicans. If the rurals are forced to give up seats, what will they demand in return for their cooperation? If an incumbent’s district is going away, what political compensation will he or she receive? It’s all about the power, the horse-trading and the deals, and very little about the voters.
In the long run, it may be worthwhile to watch what happens in Arizona and California, which have both created independent commissions to draw up legislative districts. If these commissions are successful in ensuring equal representation for all citizens of their states, then we could start the process here. However, it would take several years to draw up ballot initiatives, get them passed by voters, and enact the required legislation.
In the short term, the only solution is to keep a close eye on the Legislature and follow the progress of the redistricting bills. The stakes are huge, and the decisions made in 2011 will affect how Nevada voters are represented for the next 10 years. It’s too important to be done behind closed doors.
(To find out more about this topic, visit npri.org. and search for “redistricting”)