The pen is mightier than the vote

You want to help set legislative priorities this session? Gov. Brian Sandoval’s office number is (775) 684-5670.

Our Democratic-controlled Legislature must wield the redistricting pen with great care this session, and this process should be open and transparent. It is no secret our legislators have quite a bit on their plates in the 2011 legislative session: a budget hole so big you could drive a Mack truck through it, a rapidly withering tax base, and for a bit of spice, the highest unemployment rate in the nation. All of these are important, but redistricting is at the top of the pile.

Legislative redistricting is a process that occurs once every 10 years in conjunction with the U.S. Census and determines the boundaries of our legislative districts, and to a great extent, who will hold those seats. For too many years, it has been politics as usual here in Nevada, and it’s time that changes. It is time to give an independent transparent commission the task of redistricting. Gone should be the days that our legislators gerrymander our districts with nothing in mind other than preserving their reelection bids.

One of the most disturbing trends in modern politics is the disappearance of truly competitive legislative districts. Their gradual extinction has given way to endless partisan warfare, the complete absence of anything even remotely resembling compromise, and lest we forget, a total lack of accountability. Why should our legislators even consider consequences when they hold a two-to-one voter registration advantage back home?

Here in Nevada, the Democrats hold large majorities in both the Senate and the Assembly, so the onus is on them. What has been done to our legislative districts in the past is a travesty. It is so unfortunate that a government intended to be of, for, and by the people has become completely insulated from public opinion, since the vast majority of our officials do not effectively have to run for reelection. This is precisely why we have an electorate dominated by moderates, but “represented” by hyper-partisan, bomb-throwing ideologues.

In the past, our Democratic-controlled Legislature has readily cast aside principles like compactness, balance, community of interest, or respect for local/geographic boundaries in favor of an almost bulletproof firewall to protect their own seats. Little respect has been shown to constituency or population trend, and it shows. Nevada is last in education, first in foreclosures, first in unemployment, and we have a budgetary hole equal to half the state’s budget.

To offer a few examples, Assembly 26 meanders from Cold Springs to Incline Village, and is larger than many of our State Senate districts. Assembly 32 sprawls from Winnemucca to Spanish Springs. The North Valleys, an area that by all rights deserves its own representation, has been sliced into four different districts. No electoral victory or partisan majority justifies this sort of gerrymandering.

Other states have solved this problem. They have removed incumbent protection from the top of the list of priorities. Nevada could learn a thing or two from places like Iowa, where the legislators don’t have the luxury of raping the state constitution to ensure they never have to actually run for office or be held accountable to their constituents. Redistricting is a task given to their Legislative Services Bureau. A strict formula using population, compactness, balance, community of interest, and local/geographic boundaries is used to lay the lines. Incumbency has been eliminated from the equation.

It is time for our legislature to loosen the grip on the redistricting pen. Gov. Brian Sandoval should immediately call for a bipartisan, independent and transparent commission to redraw these maps. These maps must be drawn based on the needs of our communities, not on our legislators’ need to keep their jobs at any cost. It is time moderation returns to Carson City, and it isn’t going to happen until competition returns to the ballot box.