Sunday, Jan. 16, 2011 | 2 a.m.
Edna Flores is an 84-year-old Henderson retiree who has long been active in politics. But as she has tried to rally her neighbors to lobby their representative in Congress over the years, she faced a strange difficulty.
“I’m in District 2,” she said. “Most of my neighbors are in District 3. It’s pretty screwy.”
Flores lives in the southeastern portion of Sun City Anthem, a narrow slice of which is in Nevada’s sprawling 2nd Congressional District.
That district encompasses Nevada’s vast and sparsely populated rural counties, as well as Washoe County. To boost its population — a necessity to comply with federal laws on equal representation — it also includes pockets of urban and suburban Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Henderson.
As a result, Flores is represented by Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., who lives 450 miles away in Carson City. The rest of her community is represented by Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., who lives just seven miles away.
That reality is not only screwy, as Flores describes it, but potentially disruptive to the democratic process. New studies suggest constituents such as Flores, who live in congressional pockets separate from nearby communities, never really get to know their representatives and vice versa.
Further evidence suggests constituents such as Flores receive less federal funding, as their representatives are occupied ensuring the bulk of their districts are taken care of.
“People who live in districts where they are carved out of their traditional community of interest know way less about who is representing them, which makes it harder for them to hold their representatives to account,” said Mike Wagner, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska and co-author of “Carving Voters Out.”
“If you get drawn out of your community of interest, you probably pay less attention to your member, so your member can pay less attention to you and not have consequences for that.”
Wagner’s studies weren’t specific to Heller’s district.
But the research indicates that the constitutionally driven “one person, one vote” mandate may actually lead to less representation — a finding that Wagner argues should guide lawmakers who will decide this year how to redraw Nevada’s congressional and legislative districts.
Although maintaining districts with roughly even populations should remain the goal, Wagner said lawmakers need to be careful not to isolate pockets of voters from their natural geographic communities.
“I’d advise them to try to keep together similar communities as much as they can,” Wagner said. “It makes it easier for those citizens to band together and pressure their representatives to get something done, and it makes it much more likely the representative will pay attention to them in terms of the federal benefits they get.”
That could prove a challenge in sparsely populated Nevada.
And although population equity is the constitutional driver for drawing new districts, it sometimes takes a back seat to partisan efforts to protect seats.
Heller’s spokesman Stewart Bybee said Heller hasn’t had a problem delivering for the diverse communities in his district. Because of the immensity of the district, he acts more as a statewide official than one who represents a small, distinct congressional district.
“Because it’s a more diverse district, you have to stay on top of many more issues,” Bybee said. “But a lot of the issues are the same. Jobs, the economy, foreclosures are issues that are shared throughout the district.”
A large district can pay political dividends, especially for a congressman aspiring to higher office. And as Heller oversees the redrawing of his district, it’s unlikely he would fight to draw himself out of Clark County.
The slices of Las Vegas and Henderson that Heller represents offer him rich fundraising opportunities and a ready-made excuse for campaigning in Clark County, which could benefit him as he considers a run for the U.S. Senate seat now held by John Ensign.
Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., who may have designs on the same U.S. Senate seat in 2012, can’t be as unobtrusive when she travels outside her urban Las Vegas district to other parts of the state.
Persuading lawmakers to keep a “pie in the sky” philosophy of what’s best for their constituents is a difficult task, Wagner acknowledged.
“It would require them to take off their partisan hats,” he said. “What they want to do is create more districts for themselves. That might be better for them politically, but it certainly has deleterious consequences for people they are purported to be representing.”