About that independent redistricting commission

Almost a decade ago, Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed political maps enacted by a Democratic Legislature.

The rejection came after both parties had been as condescending as possible toward Hispanics, with Republicans slightly more risible in showing how much they cared by packing Latinos into one congressional district.

Sandoval’s veto message insisted the Democratic plan violated the federal Voting Rights Act because it did not “afford Hispanics an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their own choosing.” (That this came from the state’s first Latino governor simply added to the spectacle.)

Eventually, a judge (with questionable authority at best) appointed three “special masters,” supposedly independent experts who drew the lines that exist today. After all the Sturm und Drang, five years later, an AP analysis determined the Assembly districts “gave more favor to Democrats in 2016 than the lower chamber of any other state legislature in the country.”

So they were fair but tilted towards the Democrats, who controlled 37 of the 63 seats in Carson City in 2011 when they drew the maps. The independent trio of conscripted cartographers had come up with different maps but ones that essentially mirrored the concepts proposed by the Democrats; that is, no awful gerrymandering had occurred.

This history becomes relevant as Nevada’s League of Women Voters, following a national League blueprint, has proposed a ballot initiative to amend the Constitution to create an independent redistricting commission. Much has been written about this already, including three excellent and very different columns on this site – showing how there is more than one way to see this effort. Not having been to Shrinking Violet School – not to mention the Your Opinion Might Not be Needed Here School – I have decided to weigh in, too.

Let’s get the common-sense stuff out of the way first: Of course, it gives elected officials an immense advantage, as the Constitution reads now, if they are allowed to (nay, mandated to) draw their own districts.  They can choose their own voters, exclude potential foes, make their longevity more likely.

Districts should be drawn fairly – but, as in all things political, fairness is in the eye of the beholder. And therein lies the rub.

The so-called Fair Maps Nevada Redistricting Reform Ballot Question seems simple enough:

The Commission will consist of seven Nevada members, four who will be appointed by the leadership of the Nevada Legislature, and three who are unaffiliated with the two largest political parties who will be appointed by the other four commissioners. Commissioners may not be partisan candidates, lobbyists, or certain relatives of such individuals. All meetings of the Commission shall be open to the public who shall have opportunities to participate in hearings before the Commission.

Let’s accept as an inarguable fact that you cannot, no matter how herculean your efforts, take politics out of this process. As Libertarian David Colborne, who supports the plan, put it: “People are political animals and the work the commission will be tasked with is political work.”

Four of the seven appointees will be ipso facto political – unless you believe that legislative leaders will suddenly have their partisan impulses dulled by the desire to be, ahem, fair. Four is a majority, if my math skills have not atrophied.

The other three will be appointed by the four whom we have already established as political. And simply because they all must be unaffiliated with the major parties does not mean they don’t, as most indies do, lean one way or another. These also will not be immaculate appointments; we can presume conversation will occur before names are put forward.

The stated goal of the commission also is evanescent. As Republican Orrin Johnson, who thinks the League is on a fool’s errand, illuminated: “The commission will be ordered to draw legislative and congressional district boundaries such that they are fair to everyone with shared ‘racial, ethnic, economic, social, cultural, geographic, or historic identities,’ and do not ‘unduly advantage or disadvantage’ any political party. "

“What’s lacking in the initiative language is a funding mechanism for the pallets of magic wands necessary to achieve this idyllic utopia.”

And then there is this part: “This amendment will require redistricting beginning in 2023 and thereafter following each federal census.”

So two years after the constitutionally mandated redistricting of 2021, which the Democrats probably will use to marginalize Republicans even more than the Republicans have worked to marginalize themselves, this commission will have the power to draw new lines. No wonder the Democrats are exercised and the Republicans are gleeful.

Indeed, the partisan reflexes have been amusing to watch.

The Democrats, who dominate Carson City (42 out of 63, larger than 2011, AND the governor) are not happy with the idea of an independent commission. (It’s no coincidence the party has ties to the pastor who found redistricting religion.)

The Democrats have worked hard to register voters, recruit better candidates and have one of the best state parties in the country (as opposed to one of the worst). Why, they argue, should they not reap the benefits of all that hard work when it comes to redistricting? Besides, they were “fair” in 2011; they will be fair in 2021 (so sorry if your seat just became competitive, Rep. Amodei….).

As for the Republicans, it is heartening to see how many of them suddenly care about map fairness. I am nearly verklempt.

Josh Hicks, a longtime Republican and former Jim Gibbons chief of staff, helped write it. Ryan Erwin, one of the best GOP consultants I know, is helping. And Chrissie Hastie, who has run many Republican PACS, is the registered agent for this initiative. All that’s missing (for now, that is) for this roster is Michael Roberson, the hardcore GOP partisan who worked with Hastie on those awful recalls and who is now the CEO of AMT, the firm founded by Billy Rogers and one of the best microtargeting shops in the country.

I stopped believing in coincidences about the same time I covered my first Nevada campaign. That notwithstanding, this much is true:  The fault, my dear Republicans, is not in unfair maps – that was settled almost 10 years ago – but in your ineptitude and the Democrats’ skill that you are underlings. Republicans have glommed onto this effort now – or at least most have – not because they believe in fairness, but because they see an opportunity to level a playing field because they are so bad at the sport played there.

As Democrat Bradley Schrager, who argued that the GOP has hijacked the League, argued, there also is some reason to believe such a panel is not needed in Nevada: 

“But as for substantive questions, what problem are you trying to solve with a redistricting commission? Has Nevada been plagued with the sort of hyper-partisan gerrymandering over generations that led to maps in North Carolina or Virginia being struck down by courts? That doesn’t seem like the case. One cannot point to single-party control of questionable legitimacy here, like in those states, where dwindling vote counts still resulted in majorities engineered by weak political parties. Nevada’s electoral swings over the years have come more or less organically, not immediately after or as a result of any redistricting.”

Schrager’s argument is quite compelling, but I actually have little doubt if the roles were reversed, the Democrats would be doing the same thing. Maybe not exactly, but a reasonable facsimile thereof.

No one gives up power willingly in politics, and no one doesn’t try to get power who does not have it. This is axiomatic.

Considering there is no such thing as an independent commission, perhaps we should rely on the third branch of government to do its job if a plan is drawn unfairly? If Republicans believe what the Democrats approve next session violates the Voting Rights Act, they can always sue, right? (Insert line here about how judges being allowed to run for office vitiates the impact of this argument….)

So the League is in a difficult position here, caught between Democratic fury and Republican love. Its cause is righteous, but I have been surprised at how the crossfire has affected its usual level-headed chief, Sondra Cosgrove, who also is a professor at CSN.

Anyone, including your humble correspondent, who has dared to ask questions about (much less criticize) the initiative is labeled “sexist” or accused of “smearing” her character. I get she is feeling a lot of heat from friends (now former?). But methinks the lady….

Maybe some people think Cosgrove is being duped by the GOP opportunists. I don’t.

But if she had simply said she would accept assistance in this difficult endeavor from anyone who wants to help, regardless of their motivations, that would have been more helpful — and credible.

It also would have served her better, because a commission designed to bleed partisanship out of the most political acts there is – elected officials trying to protect their existence in the system – is about to spark one of the most intense partisan battles in state annals.