It is time for us to stop playing political Tetris in redistricting

In 1928, G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere.” This also could apply to our national decennial tradition of redistricting — unless you consider reapportionment to be art. I always get excited when it is map drawing time. Redistricting is politics with pictures, and who doesn’t love that? The every-ten-year high drama is always exciting. This year, however, feels somewhat different. 

Our various elected bodies have been steadily releasing their proposed maps, with parties at the Legislature this week releasing their proposed congressional and legislative district maps. What immediately jumped out to me was that the district I call home, the First Congressional District, finally reunites downtown Las Vegas, downtown Henderson and downtown Boulder City under one representative. It’s a vintage map in that sense, and I can appreciate that. It comes at a political cost, of course, for Democrats — by making District 1 a little more competitive. Are the glory days of Democrats winning by 20+ points in CD1 gone? Looks like they are.

The Clark County School District initially offered three proposed maps. In two, I found the district I reside in had jumped the I-15 and moved across town. The public backlash to the three early maps resulted in CCSD’s mapmaker creating two more maps, both of which met with community approval, and I believe the best map won. However, I have long wondered why CCSD even makes its own maps. The Clark County Board of Commissioners and Board of School Trustees both have seven members and seven districts. Would it not make sense to make those the same (one commissioner to one trustee, serving the same constituents)? I think this could lead to better collaboration between commissioners and trustees — and the school board could use some friends right about now.

I mentioned that this year feels different. Part of what I mean is that redistricting is always subject to one party’s preferences, with the other party objecting, but the Democrats running point on the process this year have not prevented progressives from voicing opposition centered on matters of representation and communities of interest. I will freely admit, I am far from an expert on redistricting, and had to do some research into what exactly this means. 

As is often the case with the government, it’s complicated. The feedback commissioners and school trustees received from the public, for example, largely revolved around racial or ethnic communities of interest and a worry about those communities being diluted or ignored. The challenge is that other kinds of common bonds also can constitute a community of interest, depending on who you talk to. And it can get contentious. The Nevada Independents Assistant Editor Riley Snyder recently wrote a piece on the litigious history of redistricting in Nevada that I highly recommend. In it, he perfectly encapsulates the reality that calm, quiet, consensus-driven redistricting has never been the norm in our state. Every ten years, we see the same fight get fought in the statehouse and the courts — and then we get our maps.

An alternative that has been gaining steam in some states is the idea of Independent Redistricting Commissions (IRCs). Twenty-one states have some system of nonpartisan or bipartisan redistricting. Advocates, including Vote Nevada, recently tried to move Nevada into that group during the 2021 legislative session with no success. The topic of reforming the process for legislative redistricting is very much on the level, I think, of the electoral college: When your party wins, the system is fine and shouldn’t be changed; when your party loses, the system is flawed and past its prime. 

I will admit to my own bias: I am fine, theoretically, with adopting IRCs. However, like most people, I want my team to be the winningest because I want to see proposals I support enacted. The broad consensus of organizations that support creating independent commissions will no doubt find my partisan selfishness to be a prime example of why they’re needed — so I will give them that.

The long and short of it is that here in 2021, our method of redistricting is yet another relic of a bygone era. Essentially unchanged since 1790, does it really work for a country as large, populous and diverse as ours any more? We see unitary states like the United Kingdom and Japan draw parliamentary lines determined by members of the national government—but could you imagine the United States Congress drawing its own lines? Yet, it is accepted as the norm that elected bodies up and down our state draw their own districts — by majority vote, no less. 

Yes, there is outside expertise involved, along with legal counsel, and legislators aren’t sitting down with blank pieces of paper and drawing lines in any old place, but that picture isn’t that far off, either. Redistricting, like art, requires drawing a line somewhere—but who should be holding the pencil? Not those who stand to benefit.

Nathaniel Waugh is a member of the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District Board of Trustees and the manager of Policy Advocacy and Training at the Nevada Homeless Alliance. He received his Master of Arts in Urban Leadership from UNLV.