Nevada lawmakers prepare to redraw political maps

Nevada lawmakers prepare to redraw political maps
A portion of Nevada's Assembly Districts map drawn during the 2011 redistricting process.

By SAM METZ AP / Report for America

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — A group of Nevada lawmakers traveling the state to engage the public in the once-in-a-decade redistricting process is confronting a raft of questions about race, partisanship and rural-urban divides as they prepare to redraw the state’s political maps next month.

Like neighboring Arizona and Utah, Nevada’s population has skyrocketed over the past decade, increasing by 404,000 to 3.1 million. The 15% spike was largely driven by growth in urban areas and from Hispanic and Latino residents, whose share of the population grew from 27% to 29%.

The state’s electorate has also become more blue, leading to Democratic gains in state and federal elections. Both parties have added voters, but those registered as nonpartisan are the state’s fastest-growing bloc, with their share of the electorate up five percentage points from a decade ago.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature’s decisions — particularly over the lines defining two battleground congressional districts — will be closely observed as both parties fight for control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The process is expected to be contentious and will force lawmakers to weigh competing interests: whether to add new districts, protect incumbents, adhere to county lines or unify “communities of interest” to ensure they are adequately represented. They will try to do this all while drawing neat lines and avoiding accusations of gerrymandering — where odd-looking districts unite similarly minded voters living far apart, rather than those who live only blocks away.

Politics aside, the state’s demographics present unique complexities, said Asher Killian, an attorney who works for the Legislature.

“In a state where the vast majority of the population lives in two urban cores, this alone can require counties to be split or for some districts to be so geographically small as a result of dense population that the underlying physical geography of streets and neighborhoods creates unusual shapes,” he said.

Nevada typically redistricts in its every-other-year legislative sessions. But the pandemic delayed the timeline, and the U.S. Census Bureau didn’t send updated figures until after the Legislature adjourned in June. Gov. Steve Sisolak is expected to schedule a special redistricting session for November.

Beforehand, lawmakers sitting on a subcommittee tasked with preparing the new maps are reviewing the process in educational meetings, including one in Las Vegas on Saturday and another in Carson City on Wednesday.

In Las Vegas, residents urged lawmakers to draw districts that don’t dilute the power of growing Latino and Asian American-Pacific Islander voting blocs.

Voting rights advocates explained problems that arose last decade, when courts stepped in and took over the process after Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed maps drawn by the Democratic-majority statehouse.

“Ten years ago, the Legislature did not host a meeting with tribal governments. It would be advised for this committee to consult with tribal leaders like those at the Walker River Paiute Reservation, because presently that reservation is split,” Erika Castro of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada said.

Sparks residents Eli Trimble said Wednesday that lawmakers should prioritize drawing compact districts that keep communities with similar demographics together, rather than protecting incumbents. He argued it didn’t make sense for people living in the Reno-Sparks area to be part of district with ranching and mining communities north, south and east.

“Please make sure that the districts are compact, and please make sure that you have people from northern Nevada in the room with you as you are drawing these maps,” he said.

Lawmakers and staff in both meetings discussed efforts to implement changes the Legislature made in 2019 to where inmates — who cannot vote until they are released — are counted to include them as part of communities where they previously lived rather than prison-area districts that often have different demographic and political characteristics.

The law, which bans a practice known as “prison gerrymandering,” directed prison officials to compile inmates’ last known address and send them to the state. By redistributing inmates to their pre-prison addresses, the policy increased Nevada’s urban population and effectively decreased by 10% the population of rural Pershing County, home of the Lovelock Correctional Center.

The data that prison officials provided the Legislature did not include roughly 35% of the state’s prison population. Alejandra Livingston, a Department of Corrections economist, attributed the missing addresses to several factors.

Noting the complexities of compiling last known residential addresses as state law now requires, Livingston said inmates often didn’t have traditional addresses on file because they could have been in jail before prison, living a transient lifestyle without a stable address, or not reported an address at their entry into the prison system.

She said the department pulled addresses from a system that lacked complete data because it was designed for other purposes, including mail forwarding and investigating escapes.

Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.