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March 6, 2015

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Remapping trick: Keeping county commissioners in their districts

Steve Sisolak

Steve Sisolak

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Fred Kessler knows federal voting laws so well he’s been hired 11 times by Nevada officials to redraw electoral district lines. He’s done it twice for North Las Vegas; six times for Las Vegas; twice for the Legislature and once for Clark County.

Nationwide, Kessler has been hired 27 times to do redistricting. Not one of his maps has been challenged in court.

It’s a remarkable record. But it wasn’t quite good enough for Clark County officials, who were considering hiring him to help with redistricting this year.

The reason? Kessler couldn’t guarantee that when he was finished every county commissioner would still have a job. Redistricting can draw elected officials out of their districts.

“I could tell one of the commissioners was not all that happy ... the commitment that his district would be saved could not be made,” said Kessler, a Democratic Wisconsin assemblyman who represents part of north Milwaukee.

Commissioner Steve Sisolak acknowledges he wasn’t satisfied Kessler couldn’t guarantee that when all was said and done, Sisolak wouldn’t end up living in a different commission district.

“I said, ‘I have one requirement: That everybody stay as a commissioner. Nobody loses their district,’ ” Sisolak said. “I think it’s reasonable that every commissioner deserves to stay in his seat. How do you draw somebody out of his district? A consultant should not take someone out of office, voters should.”

Instead of Kessler, the County Commission’s seven Democrats voted two weeks ago to work with Main Street Communications, a Washington political consulting firm. A county spokesman said Main Street President David Heller declined to comment to the Sun.

Heller’s job will be complicated. It will involve drawing new lines to redistribute 190,000 people in four commission districts to three districts, so that each ends up with about 279,000 people.

Then there are the politics of redrawing district lines. The Voting Rights Act, in place to ensure minority populations aren’t unduly divided by district lines, takes precedence. But fundamentally, redistricting is “the reallocation of political power,” Kessler said. So every elected official watches closely and wants their district, however it is drawn, to give them an advantage.

To help keep an eye on the political part, Heller will be armed with a map that shows the Republican (red) and Democratic (blue) leanings of each voting district in Clark County.

But Kessler said the real difficulty with the county’s current redistricting is keeping commissioners in their districts. Four of the seven live close to district boundaries. They are Sisolak, Larry Brown, Mary Beth Scow and, to a lesser degree, Susan Brager.

Scow’s district needs to gain 50,000 voters, so her district will grow and she’ll be safe by gaining more area around her home. But Sisolak’s district must lose 83,000 voters; Brown will lose 42,000 and Brager will lose 51,000. Some of that territory could include their residences.

(Tom Collins will lose 23,000, but he doesn’t live near a boundary; Chris Giunchigliani will gain 70,000 and Lawrence Weekly will gain 79,000.)

The question then becomes: Could commissioners be drawn out of their districts because another district, needing voters, swallows his or her home?

Districts drawn unrealistically — some start in one section of a map and connect by the thinnest of lines to another large section — are vulnerable to court challenges. A consultant might envision, for instance, keeping Sisolak’s home in District A, then losing most of the area around his home but still maintaining a thin line of homes connecting to a larger block of voters in the southern part of the county.

Sisolak “was worried,” Kessler said. “I think I was political enough, but what was being sought was probably next to impossible to achieve.”

Just a few years ago as the county’s population rose quickly, the commission had considered redistricting before the 2010 Census. Commissioners eventually decided against it, but they still laid down a rule preventing a consultant from drawing someone out of his district.

Part of his worry this time around, Sisolak said, was that ground rules have neither been discussed nor approved.

He’s satisfied now, however, because he got the guarantee he wanted from Heller. “He said ‘of course everybody should stay in their district,’ ” Sisolak said.

Heller’s website boasts that his company is “the political media firm with the best record in the Democratic Party.” On redistricting, it says “we can build (or analyze) redistricting plans that best suit your political needs.”

The new lines must be drawn and approved by Nov. 18.

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  1. If redistricting does not keep every commissioner in their district, the probability that some commissioners would be running against each other increases. So be it. Since when is the personal property consideration of a candidate an issue for the electorate? If they don't move, let them run where the are and let the elections fall as the PEOPLE choose. This should not even be a consideration.

  2. So instead of making sure they comply 100% with the VRA, they want to take a risk of a long, expensive court fight and then having to pay the consultant a second time to do it again because all the commissioners want to keep their job? There should be no constraints on the redistricting other than do what is right and legally required.

  3. I get so sick of journalists, redistricting consultants and election lawyers saying "The Voting Rights Act, in place to ensure minority populations aren't unduly divided by district lines, takes precedence." Not anymore.

    In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Bartlett v. Strickland. I have posted the link below.

    In the opinion Justice Kennedy states that the only circumstance where a minority group has a "right" to the creation of a custom tailored voting district is when the population of the district (as opposed to number of registered voters) is at least a 50% minority population.

    The link to Bartlett v. Strickland opinion is at:

    If you want to read the most important part of it, skip the first 5 pages of the pdf which is a nearly incomprehensible "Syllabus" written by the court's official reporter, not a Justice. Instead start on page 6 of the pdf where Justice Kennedy writes a fairly clear opinion.

    I think that the Bartlett v. Strickland opinion might provide a powerful weapon in redistricting litigation, for those who feel their county or city or Congressional District was unfairly divided in order to gerrymander voting districts where minority candidates will always win.

    The problem is that "voting rights lawyers and consultants" are circulating disinformation throughout the country by appearing on local talk shows, still claiming that under the federal Voting Rights Act that voting district maps must be drawn to favor minority groups, even when they comprise less than 50% of the population of a district. I saw one such lawyer, a woman, on Channel 10 this past week.

    The obvious goal of the disinformation campaign is to influence whoever is drawing district lines, be it the Texas Legislature or a non-partisan commission in California or the Nevada Legislature and other Nevada public agencies. In other words, the disinformation campaign is being waged to attempt to render the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Bartlett v. Strickland a practical nullity.

  4. Why not have at large and districts. The number of elected official is based on the number of votes, You may vote for one candidate in your district and one at large. Every population group has an opportunity to be rerpresented.