Progressives say Nevada redistricting maps split Latino vote

Progressives say Nevada redistricting maps split Latino vote
The Nevada Legislature on second day of the 31st Special Session in Carson City, Nev., on Thursday, July 9, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

By SAM METZ AP / Report for America

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — A congressional district map that would bolster Democrats’ advantage in Nevada swing districts is angering progressives who argue in the process it dilutes minority voting power by splitting Latinos across three districts.

The map proposed by Democratic leaders in the Nevada Legislature redraws the state’s 1st Congressional District in downtown Las Vegas. It exchanges affluent suburbs like Henderson with Democratic-leaning urban neighborhoods and divides the Allegiant Stadium from the rest of the Las Vegas Strip. In doing so, it would add Democrats to two neighboring districts that have traded hands between parties.

The current district, which Democrat Dina Titus represents, contains more than twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans. The proposal would redistribute about 1 out of every 7 Latino residents and decrease the demographic group’s share of the district from 45.1% to 35.5%.

The trade-off exemplifies competing interests facing lawmakers redrawing maps during a special legislative session underway and, for the Democratic Party coalition, a disagreement over how to maximize minority voting power; Democrats’ proposal may shore up the party’s advantage in battleground districts, but dividing the places where Democrats have the largest advantage means no district proportionately represents Latinos, who account for roughly 4 out every 10 Nevada residents.

A Democratic-majority state Senate committee advanced the proposed maps for further consideration on Saturday evening but left the door open to potentially amend it.

Maria Nieto Orta, the political director of Mi Familia Vota, said congressional candidates have historically been vocal advocates for immigration reform, but she wonders if adding white suburban voters to the district will give rise to candidates who mobilize immigration anxieties to sway undecided voters.

“As of right now, CD-1 is pro-working families and pro-immigration reform,” she said of the district. “That’s really important for electing representatives. If we separate the Latino community, it’ll be harder to elect someone who directly understands what the community needs.”

Because it has grown less than Nevada’s three other congressional districts, the shape of the downtown Las Vegas district must inevitably change. But Nieto Orta said it was important to “preserve its DNA.”

Mi Familia Vota and other groups part of a coalition called Nevadans Count submitted alternative maps on Saturday that retain the demographic makeup of the district.

“It needs to continue to be a district where low-frequency, ethnic voters can connect with representatives who understand our challenges and are unafraid to take strong stands for our policy interests,” Nieto Orta said.

For Titus, the most senior Democrat in Nevada’s congressional delegation, the proposed map could transform her safely Democratic district to one where the party’s registered voters have only a single-digit margin.

Demi Falcon, an executive assistant in Titus’ office, submitted an alternative map last week that draws Nevada’s 1st Congressional District to be 37.2% Latino and gives Democrats a 16 percentage-point registration advantage over Republicans.

Titus’ campaign spokesperson Blake Williams said the congresswoman would fight for constituents regardless of the maps, but thinks alternatives to the legislative leaders’ map — including her staff’s — better protect interests of those she represents. 

“This is a draft map that shows you can maintain communities of interest and keep the integrity of District 1 intact. It also meets legal and constitutional requirements,” Titus campaign spokesperson Blake Williams said.

Ironically, the Legislature’s Republican minority — which has limited power to overrule Democrats’ proposals — also submitted maps that retain the nature of Titus’ district and draw it to include 47.7% Latino residents.

Democrats called the Republicans’ maps a “gross attempt to isolate and weaken the political presence of both Latinos and African-Americans across the Las Vegas Valley.”

“Racially motivated packing results in a terrible misrepresentation of the growing diversity of this state, it is bad public policy, and it is flatly illegal. It should be thoroughly rejected,” Democrats in legislative leadership said in a statement.

Senate Republican Leader James Settelmeyer dismissed the accusation.

“All I know is this,” he said, ” … when you have a large group of individuals that represent a particular community of interest, they should be left together.”

Districting experts warn against maps that disempower minority voters by “packing” them in single districts or “cracking” them and dispersing them across multiple. Fighting underway in Nevada illustrates how the concepts can be partisan fodder for both sides.

“The majority plan takes individuals that live in Hispanic areas away from their district and takes ones that are left and combines them with wealthy areas. So I don’t understand how they can say our maps are problematic,” Settelmyer said.

Emily Persaud-Zamora, the director of the voting rights advocacy group Silver State Voices, said the Nevadans Count coalition was concerned about drawing districts that don’t disempower the Latino community, not about the partisan implications.

Regardless of if Republicans aim to “pack” Latino voters into a single district, Nevadans Count wants to maintain the demographic breakdown of Nevada’s 1st Congressional District because they say it’s what residents of east Las Vegas — the heart of the Latino community — support.

“Breaking down that district is really taking away the power of that community that has been there for so long,” Persaud-Zamora said.

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.