Silver State politicians argue a lot about budget and funding gaps, but there’s one big gap most of the current crop of lawmakers prefer to ignore.
It’s the gap between the number of registered Nevada voters represented in the state legislature by Democrats and the far larger number represented by Republicans.
That gap dates from even before the last redrawing of the legislative districts, in 2001, and it is an important reason why Republicans regularly end up with fewer seats in the Nevada Legislature.
The data documenting that gap comes from the Nevada secretary of state: Republican-represented Assembly districts, on average, have 14,796 more voters than do Democrat-represented districts. It’s the same in the Nevada Senate, where each Republican, on average, represents 13,603 more registered voters than does each Democrat.
Across the state, registered voters in districts currently represented by Republicans total 600,973, and registered voters in districts represented by Democrats total 537,969. Yet Democrats in the 2009 Legislative Session occupied 12 more Assembly seats and four more Senate seats.
Nevadans are frequently told that this discrepancy is an outcome of the state’s fast growth in population after the 2001 redistricting.
“That’s the problem when you do this [redistricting] once a decade,” said David Damore, assistant professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “There are obvious issues with it.”
And Michael Stewart, supervising principal research analyst at the Legislative Counsel Bureau (LCB), said, “There’s no way to draw lines based on projected growth. That’s a limitation when you’re dealing with census data.”
The problem with the fast-growing-population argument is that the discrepancies in the partisan make-up of the districts existed even before the 2001 redistricting. In 2000 and 2001, according to the office of the secretary of state, Republican-represented Assembly districts had, on average, an additional 13,279 voters, while GOP-represented Senate districts had 14,153 more registered voters.
Moreover, those same partisan discrepancies in registered voters per district also continued immediately following the 2001 redistricting. In other words, the discrepancies were built in from the start, and did not arise out of population growth:
Average number of voters
Dem districts GOP districts
2002 17,670 27,055
2004 21,178 34,777
2006 17,374 34,175
2008 21,918 41,954
Representative self-government is commonly described as the political system under which voters choose their own representatives. In the process of gerrymandering, however, the politicians essentially get to choose their own voters. This is possible because — as LCB Director Lorne Malkiewich notes — districts are required to be drawn based on U.S. Census data and not registered voters.
Thus Assembly Democrats in 2001 came to the bargaining table proposing multiple districts with registered Democratic majorities and a relative few districts that GOP candidates could easily win. The proposed Democratic districts were able to meet the roughly equal-population requirements by combining majority-Democrat neighborhoods with neighborhoods where residents were not even registered to vote. Into their few proposed Republican districts, Assembly Democrats pushed most of the registered voters.
How disproportionate are Nevada’s Democratic districts in terms of registered voters? A simple calculation is revealing.
According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Nevada’s 2009 population was 2,643,085, which means the average assemblyman now represents 62,930 residents (population divided by 42 Assembly districts) and the average senator now represents 125,861 residents (population divided by 21 Senate districts).
Assuming that Assembly districts were divided equally, the average Democrat last year in the Assembly represented a district where only 31 percent of the residents were registered voters. Comparably, the average Republican in the Assembly represented a district where 63 percent of residents were registered voters.
“Part of [the registration discrepancy] has to do with high-growth areas, but the other part is completely out-of-whack districts,” said Assemblywoman Heidi Gansert (R-Washoe), a member of the Legislative Commission’s Committee to Study Requirements for Reapportionment and Redistricting. “The Assembly absolutely needs to be redrawn and voters of Nevada deserve well-drawn districts.”
Senate districts are also lopsided regarding registered voters. Data from the secretary of state indicates the average Democrat state senator represented a district where 37 percent of the population were registered voters compared to 53 percent in Republican Senate districts.
“Obviously, you’ll have some districts remain the same and some will have to be split,” said Malkiewich. “Sometimes census data can be constraining in the redistricting process.”
According to the LCB’s Stewart, preliminary census data should arrive by mid-November, and due to the biennial legislative sessions, Nevada will be among the first states to begin the redistricting process next spring.
“We provide interim studies to review the process, discuss legal parameters, and make sure the data is useful,” Stewart said. “Our role is to make sure guidelines are followed and how they decide to redraw districts is left to the Legislature.”
According to Stewart, Nevada has never had a reapportionment or redistricting plan challenged in court. One legality the state’s redistricting plan must meet deals with population deviation — the amount a single district’s population differs from the ideal size.
For example, using 2009 data, the ideal Assembly-district size is 62,930 residents. If the largest district has around 90,000 residents, the district would have a plus-50 percent deviation, and if the smallest district has 40,000 residents, the district would have a minus-36 percent deviation. This means the overall deviation range would be 86 percent.
According to the LCB, a 10 percent deviation is, legally, considered a “safe harbor” for redistricting plans, which means current Nevada Assembly districts are well out of the “harbor.” As of the September 2010 data from the secretary of state’s office, District 13, represented currently by Chad Christensen (R-Clark) has 99,112 registered voters, whereas District 11, represented by Ruben Kihuen (D-Clark) has 8,706.
“There are obvious constitutionality issues, but no one’s called them on it,” Damore said. “A wild card is if the Legislature is increased, but if that doesn’t happen, [legislators are] in for a messy fight.”
A deviation over 10 percent indicates a prima facie, or at-first-glance, argument for discrimination, according to the LCB. In order to justify the large deviation, the State of Nevada would have to prove the deviation was necessary for implementing a rational policy, or that the plan does not dilute voting strength of a particular federally specified group.
According to Stewart, many districts are correct at the time they’re drawn but vary over time.
“As long as they stay within legal parameters and don’t incorrectly apply principles, they’re fine,” Stewart said.
The U.S. Supreme Court recognizes preserving established political subdivisions as a rational state policy, according to the LCB, which means Nevada’s redistricting history would tend to establish precedent in legal challenges.
“After the election, we’ll start turning our attention more to redistricting plans,” said Gansert. “It’s going to be tough, but something needs to be done.”
For efforts by Nevada’s neighboring states to reduce the ability of politicians to select their own voters, see the previous story in this series, titled, “The odds favor the pols.”