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Nevada schedules special session to redraw political maps

November 12, 2021 GMT

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Nevada lawmakers will convene for a special session on Friday to redraw congressional and state legislative districts based on population shifts and growth, Gov. Steve Sisolak announced Thursday.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature’s decisions — particularly over the lines defining two battleground congressional districts — will be closely observed as both parties vie for control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Maps that legislative leaders released on Tuesday will likely form the baseline for discussions through the special session.

Here’s what to know about the once-in-a-decade redistricting and reapportionment process:

WHAT ARE THE STAKES?

In a state where Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden both won narrowly, Democrats have, since 2016, won three of four congressional seats and robust statehouse majorities. A 2017 Associated Press analysis showed Nevada’s Assembly districts favored Democrats in 2016 more than the lower chamber of any statehouse in the country.

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The discrepancy between tight presidential races and convincing statehouse majorities stems from map-drawing and where people move over the course of a decade. Democratic-leaning districts — while of relatively equal population size — tend to have fewer eligible voters and lower turnout than Republican-leaning districts.

Many states draw districts to divide and combine voters to make it more likely for candidates from one party to win. These efforts can tilt scales regarding which party controls Congress and determine the composition of statehouses, where decisions are made about charter schools, guns, and how to transition away from fossil fuels.

Republicans, who have already begun criticizing the proposed maps, worry Democrats’ control of state government will enable manipulation and help them maintain power through the next decade.

HOW HAS NEVADA’S POPULATION CHANGED?

Nevada is among a group of Western states that has become more populous and more diverse over the past decade. Reapportionment and redistricting will need to account for 404,000 more state residents than a decade ago, who have moved to specific districts in Las Vegas in particular.

The Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise metro area grew faster than the Reno metro area. In Nevada, 4 out of 10 people now identify as Hispanic or Latino, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

WHO DRAWS THE MAPS?

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Nevada law directs the Legislature to draw statehouse and congressional districts. The maps are then sent to the governor for approval. Democrats control the governorship, state Senate and Assembly. Scholars have said single-party control is the most important predictor of whether a state draws fair maps and, much like Republicans in Texas or Democrats in Illinois, Nevada Democrats will face scrutiny for their decisions.

On Tuesday, the Legislature released preliminary maps that will act as a baseline for discussions. Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson and Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro in a joint statement praised the proposed maps.

“Reflecting Nevada’s increasing racial and ethnic diversity, these maps strive to both protect and expand the voting power of African-American and Hispanic Nevadans while increasing opportunities for representation for Nevada’s emergent and growing AAPI population over the coming decade,” they said, referring to the Asian American and Pacific Islander community in southwestern Las Vegas.

Lawmakers haven’t always succeeded in getting their maps implemented. A decade ago, then-Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican, vetoed Democrats’ maps and three court-appointed non-partisan “special masters” ultimately redrew districts.

Nevada isn’t among the 10 states in which independent commissions are conducting redistricting. Proponents of establishing an independent commission in Nevada failed to gather signatures necessary to put a ballot question before 2020 voters.

WHY NOW?

The United States conducts a national head count every 10 years, tallying everyone — voters and non-voters, citizens and noncitizens, children and military workers abroad. Nevada typically conducts redistricting during every-other-year scheduled 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.

Delayed delivery of the data and the months between the time Nevada received it and will conduct its special session may upend campaigns for congressional and statehouse candidates planning to run in 2022. State legislators are required to live in their districts. Members of Congress are not.

WHAT SIZES AND SHAPES WILL LAWMAKERS CONSIDER?

Districts must be of equal population size to preserve the principle of “one person, one vote.” Some states prioritize drawing compact districts, while others draw them in squiggle or starfish shapes to equally distribute population.

Nevada’s mix of dense cities and vast rangelands leads to districts of a variety of sizes. There can be minor deviation in terms of population and courts have allowed state legislative districts to vary by as much as 5%. Current maps contained as much as 1.3% variation in statehouse district population when drawn and varied by only a single person from the ideal population size. They tended to follow county lines. In the statehouse, the court-appointed special masters “nested” two Assembly districts in each Senate district.

Nevada was allocated four congressional seats in the census but state law does not require the Legislature maintain the number of state legislative seats at 63.

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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.