Most everyone knows every ten years, the states count each of their citizens in order to claim seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. The following year, state legislatures are required to re-draw district boundaries for each House member they have been allotted based upon those census numbers. In Nevada, the Legislature typically also rebalances and redrafts their Assembly and Senate Districts at the same time.
“Redistricting” is now big business. Because Congress has assumed enormous powers under the “Commerce Clause” of the U.S. Constitution, House seats matter. It helps guide funds to individual districts, especially when that member is in the majority party. It also determines which party is most likely to remain in power for the next 10 years. Everyone pays attention to how those boundaries are drawn, especially now that “big data” can tell us so much about every household, including party registration, income and spending habits. But, what many Nevadans fail to recognize is, the State Legislature controls all of this.
At the founding of the country, the framers of the Constitution were well versed in competitive politics. When the Colonies were formed, they too created voting districts to elect their representatives. Political Gerrymandering (the practice of drawing district boundary lines in a way that gives the drafter’s party an advantage) was named after one of the framers, Elbridge Gerry. Gerry, a candidate for Massachusetts governor, had drafted odd-shaped districts because he knew where his supporters lived, and he devised a way to make sure those supporters were in the majority in sufficient number of districts to get him into power.
In June 2019, the United States Supreme Court held in two cases, Lamone v. Benisek and Rucho v. Common Cause, that federal courts lacked jurisdiction to correct or even hear challenges to district boundary maps because gerrymandering was known to the framers at the time they drafted the Constitution, yet they chose not to prohibit it. It is widely presumed that the Nevada Supreme Court will approach the question the same way should it ever get that case, which is almost a certainty.
In 2021, the Nevada Legislature will redraw its political districts. If the current balance of legislators holds, this redistricting will be controlled entirely by Democrats who currently control both houses of the Legislature and the Governor’s office. After the 2000 Census, California Democrats were in control when Jerry Brown won the Governor’s office after Arnold Schwarzenegger termed-out. The Democrats redistricted Republicans almost totally out of existence.
The ramifications of holding majority power after a census cannot be overstated. In light of Lamone and Rucho, it is expected that the Democrat-controlled Nevada Legislature will draw boundaries so heavily Democrat-advantaged that no other party could hope to bring balance to Nevada again. As a result, the practically impotent Nevada Republicans have stressed the importance of balance, having jettisoned the notion that they could ever control both houses in time. They now call for balance. The League of Women Voters went a step further and proposed a ballot initiative to establish a permanent, non-partisan commission to control the redistricting process, assuring that the voters in each district are adequately balanced, potentially without regard to party. But that has to get a majority of voters across two general elections – something incredibly hard to do.
So, the fact of the matter is, unless there is balance after this general election, at least a Republican majority in the Senate, it is highly likely that Nevada will lose any hope of having a conservative presence in policy choices for at least the next 12 years. Redistricting is important to Nevadans.
Keith Pickard is Senator of Nevada District 20.