Nevada’s legislative district lines are constitutionally dubious
LAS VEGAS — When poker players hold an awful hand, which no card will help, and yet they draw, it's called "drawing dead."
Nevada's Republican lawmakers sitting down at the reapportionment table next year will be in the same fix — unless November's elections bring them significant gains in the state Senate or Assembly.
That's because the 76th session of the Nevada Legislature next year will be redrawing the state's voting districts and thus setting election ground rules for the next 10 years. It's also because existing Nevada districts already show clear evidence of gerrymandering — the dividing of electoral districts to favor one political party.
According to a report by Marvin Longabaugh, attorney and president of Magellan Research, claims of gerrymandering have existed in Nevada dating from 1915 all the way to 2000, the last time districts were redrawn.
"It has been going on forever," said state Sen. William Raggio (R-Washoe). "As long as you have the Legislature controlled by one party, there will be gerrymandering."
Assemblyman Lynn Stewart (R-Clark) represents Clark County's 22nd district, the second-largest district in the state, with 92,597 voters. Since 2001, Stewart's district has seen a 48 percent increase in registered voters, while Clark County's eighth district, represented by current Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley (D-Clark), has only 11,813 voters, a 13 percent decrease from 2001.
"There are seven Democrats representing districts that are, combined, smaller than mine," said Stewart. "[Gerrymandering] is something we're constantly fighting, but in February we just need numbers to change things."
Democrats claim both sides play politics, no matter who controls the Legislature.
"That's what everybody does," said Assemblyman Paul Aizley (D-Clark). "The people in power will do what they can to keep the people in power."
Even though the next legislative session is four months away, lawmakers are preparing for the redistricting battle. Assemblyman Tick Segerblom (D-Clark) is in the very early stages of developing legislation that the Assembly will examine in February.
"Right now the process is strictly mechanical," said Segerbloom. "Each caucus will look at ideal goals after the election." According to Segerblom, goals that will be examined include rural-area representation and double districting in Clark County.
Solutions to the gerrymandering problem have presented themselves over the years, but according to Stewart, problems still remain. One proposal — the "Existing Borders" plan — was offered by Longabaugh after the 2000 census, when he was a law student. The plan called for municipal boundaries to be used for redistricting rather than the artificial boundaries legislators select. Longabaugh said he wrote the plan as a potential law review article and had no major political intentions. He still, however, believes Nevada needs redistricting reform.
"Constitutionally, there's a challenge," he said. "There are districts with two senators, and that's purely being done to protect incumbents."
The constitutionality question for Nevada arises out of the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment, which the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted to mandate "one man, one vote." Yet some Nevada districts are either over- or underrepresented. For example, Senate District 5, in Clark County, has 116,343 voters and two state senators — Democrats Shirley Breeden and Joyce Woodhouse, while Senate District 9, also in Clark County, has 136,588 voters but only one senator — Republican Dennis Nolan.
Former state senator and current state GOP Chairman Mark Amodei served during the Senate's 2001 redistricting session. According to Amodei, realizing "one person, one vote" is a challenge when trying to draw districts that reflect their geographic areas.
"The problem is when you see these peninsulas or fingers sticking in and out of districts," said Amodei. "When you've got that much [voter] variation on one side, some voters are getting more bang for their buck."
Assemblyman Tom Grady (R-Washoe), whose district includes rural areas such as Storey County, cites examples of gerrymandering all over the state, from Douglas County to Clark County.
"It is very apparent what is being done," said Grady. "We must fight to correct this wrong this time."
Whether lawmakers can correct the wrongdoings or not is another story.
"I'd like to take redistricting out of the Legislature's hands and put it in the people's hands," Longabaugh said. "I don't know if it's the best solution, but it might be one of the fairest."