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August 31, 2016

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Politics:

Pondering the power of Hispanic voter blocs

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Justin M. Bowen

Early voters fill the Galleria at Sunset mall voting station Saturday, the first day of early voting. Whether Hispanic voters turn out to vote in large numbers could be pivotal in the race between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican challenger Sharron Angle.

Mark Amodei

Mark Amodei

Which is a better bet for Nevada Hispanics who want to turn their growing numbers into political influence: to seize majority control of a congressional district so they can elect a representative of their choosing? Or to spread their numbers across multiple districts to improve their statewide sway at election time?

That’s the latest question to emerge from the redistricting battle heating up in Carson City.

Redistricting is the decennial drill in which lawmakers try to carve out politically advantageous congressional and legislative districts for themselves and their parties. This year, the exercise includes redrawing Nevada’s three existing congressional districts to accommodate a fourth district, because of the state’s growth over the past 10 years. In what typically turns into an ugly fight, Democrats and Republicans work to preserve existing boundaries that benefit them or shape new districts favorable to the higher offices they hope to one day win.

The battle usually hinges on party affiliation. This year, race also plays a role.

Republican legislators have unveiled their political strategy by drawing a congressional district, four state Senate districts and eight Assembly districts with majorities of Hispanic voters.

By comparison, Democrats are trying to keep Hispanic votes spread out statewide by giving no congressional district a Hispanic majority. Instead, Nevada’s four congressional districts under the Democrats’ plan each would be composed of 20 to 30 percent Hispanic voters. Democrats suggest 11 Assembly and five Senate districts with a significant Hispanic influence. Three of the Assembly districts and two of the Senate districts would have a Hispanic majority.

Hispanics make up 26 percent of the state’s population, but there are just eight Hispanics in Nevada’s 63-member Legislature and none in its congressional delegation. Republicans say their redistricting plan will ease the disparity.

“When you get to a population of one in four, I think that has to be dealt with in terms of how you draw districts ... to empower Hispanics with an actual seat,” Republican Party Chairman Mark Amodei told public radio station KNPR 88.9-FM.

Drawing a district with a racial majority frequently results in the election of members of that race. After the 1990 census, lawmakers created 13 black majority congressional districts nationwide and in each case, a black representative was elected.

Nevertheless, Democrats and many Hispanics call the Republican proposal suspect. They accuse the GOP of trying to pack Hispanics into a few districts to dilute their overall influence in elections. Some liken it to political segregation.

Hispanics tend to vote Democratic and were instrumental in electing President Barack Obama and re-electing Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

To create a majority-minority district, Republicans propose pulling Hispanics from surrounding districts. Although that could arguably increase Hispanic influence in the 4th Congressional District — the majority-Hispanic district the GOP proposes — it would dampen their power in surrounding districts by lessening their numbers. Advocates worry that without a significant Hispanic vote up for grabs, politicians will ignore minority communities in non-majority areas.

Democrats also accuse Republicans of being disingenuous with their proposal because it doesn’t actually give Hispanics a real majority in CD4. The Republican plan draws the district’s boundaries so it includes a 51 percent Hispanic majority. But the GOP bases its figures on all Hispanics, including those younger than 18 and those in the country illegally, who cannot vote. Hispanic voters account for 44 percent of the district — too few to definitively decide an election.

“What they’ve been doing is calling it a minority-majority district,” said Andres Ramirez, vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee’s Hispanic Caucus. “They may be technically correct when you factor in the African-American community, but it’s certainly not a Hispanic district. That’s something that seems to be devoid of Republican thinking.”

It’s impossible to separate politics from policy when it comes to redistricting.

“When one party is advocating for one thing and the other party is advocating for another thing, that’s a big a tipoff for how the results actually play out,” said Michael McDonald, a redistricting expert who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a government and politics professor at George Mason University.

Democrats are wary of a redistricting plan that consolidates the Hispanic voting bloc because it would likely strengthen Republican chances in other districts that end up with fewer Hispanics.

Indeed, in proposing a majority-Hispanic CD4, Republicans are looking at making CD3 more red. That would benefit Republican Rep. Joe Heck, who beat Democratic incumbent Dina Titus last year by fewer than 2,000 votes. The GOP plan transforms Heck’s swing district into one with a 4-point Republican advantage, making it less likely a Democrat would unseat him. Under the Republican plan, CD3 would go from being the most Hispanic district in the state to the least.

“If you are really sincere about protecting Hispanic interests, you’d think you’d want to keep them in the district where they are used to voting,” Ramirez said.

Just like there’s no way to remove politics from the equation, there’s no definitive answer about what type of district best ensures fair representation for Hispanics.

“There’s no right way,” said David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan think tank that studies elections. “What works in one state may not work in another state.”

Even Hispanic political activists are conflicted. Fernando Romero, president of Hispanics in Politics, Nevada’s oldest Hispanic political group, initially supported the idea of a majority-Hispanic district, then changed his mind.

“We need strong representation,” Romero said on KNPR in early April. “We need somebody who can speak for the masses ... and I feel strongly that a congressional district, a Hispanic district, will bring us more bang for our buck.”

But on April 28, he took a different stance: “In response to the GOP Legislative Caucus redistricting plan, we find the maps do not protect the Hispanic community of Nevada. In fact, they disenfranchise the Hispanic community.”

Romero blamed the oddly shaped CD4 Republicans proposed for the turnaround in his thinking. He accused Republicans of racial gerrymandering.

Ultimately, a judge will probably make the call. Democrats have the majority in the Legislature and thus the votes to pass the maps they draw, but Republicans have Gov. Brian Sandoval, the state’s first Hispanic governor, who has vowed to veto anything he sees as unfair. It’s unlikely the two sides will reach an agreement.

Even the guiding legal principle for redistricting is up for debate. The Voting Rights Act dictates how districts can be drawn, but Democrats and Republicans differ in their interpretation of the law. Republicans argue a Hispanic district must be drawn because of the rise in Nevada’s Hispanic population (an argument most redistricting scholars disagree with). Democrats accuse Republicans of using race as the major factor to determine district boundaries, which is illegal.

But putting out partisan redistricting plans is not a futile effort. Courts often look at legislative proposals when deciding redistricting maps, so each party is hedging its bets by putting its most favorable proposal forward.

Still, not every judge follows that model.

“It’s always possible the courts will look at the plans and say they are too partisan, we’re going to do it on our own,” McDonald said. “That’s the gamble the political establishment is taking.”

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