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August 22, 2017

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Five reasons why redistricting matters to you

Eyes often glaze over at the mere mention of the word redistricting.

So let's start with the bottom line: The Nevada Legislature's decisions on how to redraw the boundaries of state Senate, Assembly and congressional districts -- due by June 6 -- will determine the course of government for the next decade.

Lawmakers must redistrict every 10 years, when new census data are available. The mission: to ensure equal representation for all by making sure that districts have roughly the same populations.

By the end, you may or may not be able to unite with your neighbors to pressure your representative or belong to a district with a common set of concerns -- rural issues, cultural or racial affinities or political interests.

Here are five things at stake for voters as lawmakers begin the redistricting fight in earnest:

      1. Redistricting can reduce or increase gridlock in Congress and the Legislature.

      Everyone claims to hate the political stalemates so common in Congress and the Nevada Legislature -- the ongoing budget fights in Carson City and Washington, for example.

      Redistricting can affect how often those occur.

      Each party's primary motive is to draw districts to achieve the greatest odds of winning year after year.

      That philosophy, however, can result in districts packed with Democrats or Republicans who will continually elect more extreme candidates.

      Split districts, on the other hand, tend to elect more moderate candidates.As Assemblyman Pat Hickey, R-Reno, put it in a recent op-ed in the Reno Gazette-Journal, redistricting is the once-a-decade opportunity for politicians to decide who gets to elect them.

      "Seeing self-interested officials redraw their own political boundaries is akin to foxes (politicians) guarding the hen house (the decisions of voters)," he wrote.

      2. Issues will be taken hostage in the redistricting fight.

      Redistricting has been described as the most nakedly political process undertaken by the Legislature. (Old-timers in the building tell stories of actual fistfights that broke out when lawmakers didn't get the district they wanted.)

      That means the fight over redistricting won't happen in isolation.Many issues are vulnerable to becoming a hostage in the battle. Most importantly: Taxes and the budget.

      Democrats are seeking any leverage they can find to budge at least five Republicans from their adamant support of Gov. Brian Sandoval's budget.Drawing individual lawmakers a district they like could come in handy as sine die approaches.

      3. Minority voters are key to the fight.

      One of the legal authorities governing redistricting is the Voting Rights Act, which was passed at the height of the civil rights movement in the1960s to prohibit the disenfranchisement of minority voters. The only higher authority is the U.S. Constitution.

      And the two can conflict when it comes to redistricting.

      The Voting Rights Act has been interpreted to require that dividing a majority-minority community into various districts dilutes a minority community's political influence.

      On the other hand, using race as a primary factor in a governing decision could run afoul of the 14th Amendment.

      This is an underlying tension between Republican and Democratic maps.Republicans have drawn more majority-minority legislative districts than Democrats, arguing the Voting Rights Act tells them they have to.Democrats have tried not to dilute current minority strength in some districts and have drawn far fewer majority-minority districts.

      Both sides are accusing the other of "packing" minorities into districts to make other districts safer for their party. Both have representatives from minority communities arguing in their favor.

      Either side may end up in court.

      4. The quality of your representation can be affected.

      How the lines are drawn can determine the affinity between you and your representative. And it's not about whether your representative is Republican or Democrat.

      In one proposed map, a state senator living in an urban neighborhood in North Las Vegas would represent constituents in Elko -- a town of 16,000 in the rural northeast corner of the state.

      The first fundamental rule governing redistricting is one person, one vote.

      That means each district needs to be as close to the same population as possible. The maps also must abide by the Voting Rights Act.

      Once those requirements are met, lawmakers should keep districts compact,avoid drawing incumbents out of their districts, and try to draw lines that respect county and city boundaries (no amoeba-shaped lines).

      Even within those parameters, districts can be drawn in an infinite number of ways, resulting in representatives with different lifestyles, communities and interests than voters in their district.

      5. Redistricting can influence your ability to influence your representative.

      Voters should to be able to work together to influence their representatives. It's pretty much the organizing principle behind democracy.

      Studies show that neighborhoods, or even portions of neighborhoods, that are carved out of their natural communities to fulfill some other redistricting priority don't fare as well in being represented. They receive less federal funding, live farther from their representative and are thwarted from easily joining with other like-minded voters to petition their lawmakers.

      Often, natural communities are hard to see in the black and white demographic numbers or map lines on pages.

      Although the redistricting process remains in the hands of the Legislature,it's possible for the public to provide input.

      But both parties have placeholder lawsuits filed in court. Gov. Brian Sandoval has vetoed one set of maps drawn by the Democratic majority.Lawmakers have three weeks to pass consensus maps, or a judge -- or in the case of the Nevada Supreme Court, the justices -- will decide how the lines are drawn. And at that point, the public no longer has a say.

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