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Recap: Breaking down Nevada's redistricting process

Multiple lawmakers huddle around a piece of paper while leaning over a desk inside the Nevada legislative building.
David Calvert
The Nevada Independent
Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, Chief Clerk Susan Furlong and Majority Floor Leader Teresa Benitez-Thompson on the final day of the 33rd special session of the Nevada Legislature in Carson City on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021.

This week, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak approved new redistricting maps for the state after they were passed by lawmakers during a brief special session. To learn more, KUNR News Director Michelle Billman spoke with Riley Snyder of The Nevada Independent, who covered the session.

Michelle Billman: So, before we dive into the details of what was approved, can you briefly remind us the reason why redistricting occurs every decade and how it can impact voters?

Riley Snyder: So, redistricting happens every decade under instruction from the U.S. Constitution and the Nevada Constitution to do the census. If you didn't have someone go to your door, you probably fill it out online, but it's basically getting a sense of how many people live in each individual political district, and the redistricting process is the effort by states to kind of balance the districts to ensure that we stick as closely to “one person, one vote” as possible.

How it can impact voters is that if you live in an area that seen a lot of growth, you may find yourself in a new district because your representative 10 years ago, had a balanced district, but now it's out of whack because other areas might have lost population, or you might be in a more populated area, so it really comes down to affecting both your representative over the next decade, and who you're going to be voting for and what kind of races you'll be voting for, how competitive a district you might live in, and how much, really, political mail and TV ads and online ads that you see.

Billman: Well, you reported for The Nevada Independent that the approved maps are expected to favor Democrats in future elections. Can you break down some of the potential advantages that may come out of this?

Snyder: So, Nevada has four congressional seats; that number wasn't changed after the 2020 census. Prior to this redistricting cycle, there was essentially one safe Republican seat, the one held by Mark Amodei that covers most of Northern Nevada, and then three that sort of touch Clark County, which is the state's population base. There was one that was [a] very safe Democrat, held by Congresswoman Dina Titus, and there were two swing/competitive districts held by Reps. Steven Horsford and Susie Lee.

The changes made during this redistricting special session really kind of balance out those three Clark County districts so that they all favor Democrats, but don't overwhelmingly favor Democrats. It's kind of a bet that if things go badly for Democrats in the state of Nevada, or nationally, they'll probably still be able to hold on to these three seats, as opposed to the paradigm before, where if things go poorly, it's very likely they'll lose those two competitive seats and only have the one, so that's probably the biggest one and the one that most people pay attention to was the congressional change.

Billman: Right. Well, and there were also concerns about the Latino vote in Nevada possibly being split up due to how the maps were re-drawn. Is that still an issue at this point?

Snyder: Yes, so it is very much an issue. The maps that were adopted and signed into law by Governor Sisolak reduced the percentage of Latinos that live in the state's first congressional district. That's that one held by Congresswoman Dina Titus, that was based in kind of central Las Vegas. So, it went down by, I think, somewhere around 10 percentage points of Latino voters, so there was a lot of concern and a lot of public testimony and comment that these new maps would sort of dilute the voice of Latinos.

It's a a process in kind of the whole redistricting world called cracking, where you kind of move populations of minorities into equal parts in districts, so they really can't have a majority in any one district and elect someone who comes from that community or looks like those people. So, that was probably the biggest concern, and, really, under the Federal Voting Rights Act, which is kind of the, like, litmus test for a lot of these redistricting maps, that's one of the big ones is racial gerrymandering. And I would expect that might be an area that is challenged in court that change in the percentage of Latino voters in the congressional districts.

Billman: And along with the concerns we've talked about, I know your reporting covered issues about the process overall, brought up by some of the Republican lawmakers you talked to you. Can you break down the process concerns with how this unfolded?

Snyder: Yes, so Republican lawmakers really didn't have a lot to do during the special session. Usually redistricting in Nevada is done during the regular legislative session, but that was delayed because of the COVID 19 pandemic, delaying the census and kind of pushing everything back. So, our legislature, which meets once every two years for 120 days, wasn't able to complete the redistricting process, and in normal times, normal processes, it would be part of kind of the negotiations going on in the legislature. That wasn't possible, and we had to meet in a special session to get the new maps done, and because they only require a majority vote, and Republicans are pretty far from almost that 50/50 split, they didn't have a lot of say in what was going on, so they had concerns with the rules. They had concerns that their maps were not being looked at, that the maps being adopted overwhelmingly favored Democrats. Beyond the congressional districts, the maps really give a strong advantage to Democrats in legislative districts.

There's an organization at Princeton called the Princeton Gerrymandering Project that sort of analyzes the vote breakdown, voter registration breakdown and performance in past presidential elections. And for the proposed new maps, Democrats are strongly favored to have super majorities moving forward, which means that even though the state's vote might be 50/50, or 49/51, Democrats have a very good chance and a wave election is really needed to kind of shake loose some of these incumbents even if Republicans are doing better statewide, so that was their biggest concern.

You know, they are not being shy again about hinting at a possible lawsuit coming down. Again, that's harder to prove; there's a lot of federal case law about partisan gerrymandering or drawing districts to favor one party over another, so I think their case is a little bit narrower than the case of the diluted Latino vote. But that's certainly something we'll be covering and something that's likely to come up in the coming weeks and months.

Billman: One other concern that was raised multiple times during the process was the issue of prison gerrymandering, and at one point, a number of inmates were reallocated so that they would be counted at their last known address instead of the prison where they're serving time. Can you break down that issue a little more for us?

Snyder: Back in 2019, Nevada lawmakers passed a bill, that was signed into law, with the idea of ending what's called prison gerrymandering. The idea is that rural counties sort of benefit because most of the state's prisons are located there. And people who are incarcerated are counted as residents of those counties, even though they don't pay taxes. Obviously, they're, you know, behind bars, so they're not really, like, full Pershing County residents. But the idea was to, sort of, have them count as residents of their last known residential address, which sounded good in theory, but turned out to be a very difficult task for the State Department of Corrections to get their hands on.

What had happened was that they had submitted a list of names and residential addresses to lawmakers to the people who put this data together. The ACLU and a few other civil liberties organizations had essentially threatened to sue, saying that you weren't complying with the law. This set off a behind-the-scenes scramble to, kind of, get those addresses figured out and got more state agencies involved. And, midway through the redistricting special session, me and all the other people who were boring enough to set up accounts with the redistricting software, got to notice that all of the maps were out of date because about 1,600 addresses of inmates had now been found, and we're now reallocated based on their last residential address.

This is less important for legislative districts, because they can have deviations in population, but for congressional districts, they have to be, literally, split four ways for Nevada's four congressional districts, so changing the addresses of 1,600 people really threw that off. […] The boundaries were definitely modified between all the congressional districts. My favorite one is there's a horse ranch that I'm sure one person lives at that's now in Congressional District Four and the day before was in Congressional District Three; it was just balanced because they had to get that, literally, equal population, or as close as possible, between the four districts.

Billman: Riley, is there anything else that you learned from your coverage that you think is worth noting?

Snyder: Yeah, some of the maps can be fascinating. So, for the Reno audience, there's now a portion of Somersett that is in the same state senate district as Elko, or parts of Elko, so really, like, the kind of divvying up of these boundaries was very fascinating to watch, for someone who lives in Northern Nevada and used to live in Southern Nevada. I would really say and recommend, like, go either on our website or on the legislature’s website, and kind of look at like, you know, ‘Whose district am I in now? Is this, like, relatively even?’ That can probably give you an idea of how much, like, political mail and mailers you're going to get heading into the 2022 election, at the very least.

Billman: We'll have to leave it there. Riley, thank you for sharing your insights.

Snyder: Of course. Thanks so much for having me on, Michelle.

Michelle Billman is the news director at KUNR Public Radio in Reno, Nevada where she oversees a scrappy crew of multimedia storytellers. She’s a transplant from the East Coast, where she earned degrees in creative writing and English from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and Virginia Tech.
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