Democrat plan may violate the Voting Rights Act, ‘fractures’ Hispanic vote across legislative, congressional districts
Although Nevada's Hispanic population grew by 80 percent over the last decade and Hispanics account for a quarter of Nevada's total population, less than one in 20 assembly and senate districts drawn by the Democrats contain Hispanic majorities.
Currently, two assembly districts and two state-senate districts have voting-age populations that are majority Hispanic. The Democrat-proposed maps maintain the number of Hispanic-majority assembly districts at two and reduce the number of Hispanic-majority senate districts to one (although another district's voting-age population is 49.9 percent Hispanic). Twelve assembly district and six senate districts under the Democrats' plan have Hispanic voting-age populations greater than 25 percent.
Republican-proposed maps, on the other hand, create nine Hispanic voting-age majority assembly seats and three such senate seats. The Republican plan would establish 14 assembly districts and six senate districts where Hispanic voting-age populations exceed 25 percent.
The number of Hispanic-majority seats in Nevada's legislature is an issue because of Section 2 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA). Because Nevada is not a "pre-clearance state," it avoids the requirements of Section 5 of the VRA, which the Brennan Center for Justice says requires that, "At least the same number of minority opportunity districts [that existed] in a previous redistricting plan must be drawn in a new redistricting plan."
Under Section 2 of the VRA, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that discrimination can occur in redistricting if the districts are drawn in such a way that they dilute the power of the collective vote of a racial minority (Thornburg v. Gingles, 1986). In the Thornburg ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned five North Carolina legislative districts that had been drawn so black voters were not in the majority.
According to the Brennan Center's Justin Levitt, the U. S. Supreme Court laid out three criteria for creating minority districts:
- The minority group is sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a single-member district;
- The minority group is politically cohesive; and
- In absence of special circumstances, bloc voting by the white majority usually defeats the minority's preferred candidate.
While the VRA and subsequent Court rulings specifically mandate the creation of majority-minority districts in certain circumstances, David Damore, associate professor of political science at UNLV, says that such Section 2 criteria are used to avoid creating a minority district "for the sake of creating a minority district."
"Right now, the Republicans' proposal comes across as patronizing but it's a significant improvement from their last  redistricting cycle," said Damore. "The biggest issue may come down to symbolic representation versus political representation."
The "patronizing" aspect Damore refers to is the GOP proposal for an Hispanic-majority congressional district. According to the Republicans' plan, CD-4 population would be 50 percent Hispanic and have a voting-age population that is 44 percent Hispanic. The other three districts in the Republicans' plan have voting-age populations that are 17, 16 and 12 percent Hispanic, respectively.
"The threshold obligation [in Nevada districts]," said Levitt, "will be based on the half-of-a-district-sized-population standard rather than the no-less-than-last-time standard."
The Republicans' plan nearly guarantees CD-4 voters could elect a Hispanic Congressman, but some skeptical Hispanic activists have criticized it for "diluting" the Hispanic vote in the other three districts.
"We respectfully disagree with the Republicans' assembly, senate and congressional districts," said Fernando Romeo, president of Hispanic in Politics, during a Joint Legislative Operations and Elections meeting on May 5. "We feel their districts dilute the Hispanic community and reduce a voice we've earned as a result of the last Census."
By contrast, the largest Hispanic district under the Democrat-proposed congressional plan is CD-1, which contains a voting-age population that is 28 percent Hispanic. Democrat-designed districts 2, 3 and 4 contain Hispanic voting-age populations of 16, 24 and 19 percent, respectively.
Even though Democrats have accused Republicans of "packing," the Democrats' congressional and legislative maps could be challenged for "fracturing," which Section 2 of the VRA describes as "dispersing the minority population among districts."
The Brennan Center defines "packing" as cramming "as many like-minded voters into as few districts as possible. While the group is likely to win in the districts into which they are packed, their voting strength is diminished elsewhere."
The irony, according to Tibi Ellis, chairwoman of the Nevada Republican Hispanic Caucus, is that two of the three Hispanic-majority assembly seats under the Democrat plan are over 70 percent Hispanic, whereas the eight Hispanic-majority seats under the Republican plan are more even, with no seat eclipsing 60 percent.
"They [Legislative Democrats] accused Republicans of packing, but their assembly districts are packed, and their congressional districts are diluted," said Ellis.
According to Ellis, the Democrats have persuaded Hispanics to "think Democrat first, Hispanic second," allowing the Democrats' plan to reflect heavier partisan advantages than does the Republicans' plan.
The Democrats' congressional plan contains three Democrat-leaning districts (CD's 1, 3, and 4) and one Republican district (CD-2), whereas the Republican plan contains two Democrat districts (1 and 4), one Republican district (2), and one district (CD-3), that is Republican-leaning but only by three percentage points.
Recently, the Legislative committees approved the Democrats' plan along a party-line vote. However, Republican Governor Brian Sandoval, who has said he'll only sign off on "fair plans," could veto their maps. The result could be a compromise or a showdown in the First District Court in Carson City, where both parties have already filed placeholder lawsuits.
Assemblyman Tick Segerblom (D-Las Vegas), chair of the Assembly Operations and Elections Committee, thinks both parties can reach a consensus and avoid court.
"Nevada has a history of reaching compromises and I don't think this year will be any different," said Segerblom in an e-mail response. "There is no reason why reasonable politicians would allow courts to do something which is inherently political."
Damore, on the other hand, remained skeptical, noting the 2001 redistricting maps were finalized during a special legislative session.
"It's going to be a long, ugly summer," Damore said. "Especially with the differences in the budget talks, I'd be surprised if they [state legislators] avoided the courtroom."
For more redistricting coverage, please visit http://blog.transparentnevada.com/p/redistricting.html.