Latino voters are focus of redistricting battle
After two decades of relatively friendly reapportionment in Nevada, state legislators and the governor are in stalemate, with wide expectations that the courts will have to impose a solution.
Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed the redistricting plan enacted by the Nevada Legislature, which was designed to give Latinos a leg up in two of the state’s four U.S. House districts. Sandoval said the lawmakers should instead concentrate Latinos in a single district to give them a majority.
The legislative plan was approved by a Democratic legislature. Sandoval is a Republican. The Democrats do not have the votes to override Sandoval’s veto.
Legislative Republicans had offered their own plan, which provided the kind of district lines Sandoval wants.
The two sides take different approaches to enhancing Latino voting power:
• The majority plan drawn up by the Democrats for the U.S. House districts distributes Latino voters in order to make that group the dominant political factor in two of the districts. In other words, all three districts would be fertile territory for Latino issues and might foster election of Latino candidates. In Congressional [House] District 1, Latinos would be 33.6 percent of the voters, and in Congressional District 3, they would be 29.2 percent of the voters. In the other two districts, Latinos would still be about a fifth of the electorate: 20.5 in District 2, which is Northern Nevada, and 22.9 in District 4, which is in Clark County. Of course, this also makes more than one district that is friendly to Democrats.
• The minority plan was crafted by Republicans to create Congressional District 4, which would be 50.7 percent Latino, presumably all but guaranteeing election of a Latino. It is the core district of Las Vegas. The other House districts would then be 20.6, 20.4 and 14.4 Latino. The 20.4 figure applies to District 2, which includes most of Northern Nevada. Of course, this also limits members of a single group that generally votes against Republicans to a single district, making the other three districts more friendly to them.
Republicans accused Democrats of scattering Latino voters in order to decrease their voting power. Democrats accused Republicans of restricting Latino voting power to a single district.
“In the last 10 years, the Hispanic community in our state has grown significantly,” Sandoval wrote in his veto message. “Indeed, recent Census figures reveal that one in four Nevadans are of Hispanic decent. The law—and common sense—requires that we recognize this fact and afford Hispanics an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choosing. The plan in this bill, however, does not do so. Of the four Congressional seats it establishes, not one contains a Hispanic majority—though such a district can clearly and simply be drawn, consistent with traditional redistricting principles. … With Hispanics accounting for 46 percent of the total population growth in our state over the last 10 years, this transparent effort to avoid creating even one additional district where this community would be likely to elect its candidate of choice is simply not acceptable.”
Democratic Sen. Mo Denis took Sandoval on directly, saying Republicans have been hostile to Latino aspirations.
“There is a difference between protecting a community of interest and using one for your own political purpose,” he said. “The Republican Party’s record on Hispanic issues borders between ambivalent and atrocious, so their sudden interest in taking up the mantle of minority voting rights must be examined. History matters. Motive matters. Simply put, you don’t let the fox guard the hen house.”
As a candidate for governor, Sandoval carefully avoided a Latino identification, adopting issue positions—such as support for the Arizona immigration policies—that disturbed many Latino voters. One Las Vegas Sun article early in his campaign contained this sentence: “Sandoval was somewhat circumspect about the entire conversation around Hispanic voters, and rejected the notion that a person’s racial or ethnic heritage would dictate his or her views or political program.” Sandoval argued that there are no Latino issues, that they are concerned with the same things as other voters, an assertion contradicted by polling in Nevada. Sandoval’s strategy worked—Latinos voted against him by a two-to-one margin.
In this year’s legislature, Republican legislators have introduced measures to make English the official Nevada state language and require that driver’s license examinations be conducted only in English.
Every Latino and every African-American in the legislature voted for the Democrats’ plan, naturally enough, since all of them are Democrats.
Both House districting plans contains some gerrymandering, though more of it in the Democratic plan.
The principal manipulation of districts in the GOP plan comes in the effort to create the Latino district. In order to create it, a second district wraps almost completely around it.
Otherwise, the GOP districts are fairly contiguous. When Nevada got a fourth U.S. House seat, it was expected that three of them would go to Clark County, but that some voters from the rest of the state would have to be pulled in to provide enough voters for districts of about 675,138 voters each.
In reaching out of Clark County to get voters in the Republican plan, a fairly straight line cuts across the bottom of Nevada, pulling voters from nearby and entirely southern areas. In the Democratic plan, by contrast, a plume shoots deep into the small counties as far north as Lyon County.
Sandoval’s veto message accused the Democrats of violating the federal Voting Rights Act. While that law encourages districts that protect what are known as “communities of interest,” it is not specific on how that should be done. In the past, most litigation in this field has dealt with districts that have—or fail to have—majorities for minorities.
Generally, the courts have struck down laws that clearly avoid giving minorities voting power when it can be done but lawmakers fail to do it. That has usually involved situations where minority groups can be given a majority within a single district.
The courts have not really had opportunities to address the different approach taken by the Democrats, of beefing up numbers of a minority group in more than a single district to make them more influential political players. But courts have struck down instances of packing all minority voters in a single district when it costs them two districts that would have given them more voting power, though that has usually involved overwhelming numbers—as when, say, a single district is 90 percent-plus African-American.
Democrats are retooling their plan, but legislators in both parties say an agreement is unlikely. But it is a measure of how important Latinos have become in Nevada politics that the parties are battling over how best to win their votes.