Panel of masters to draw Nevada voting districts

Hoping to take the politics out of redistricting -- a task that proved impossible to lawmakers elected to handle such matters -- a Carson City judge Tuesday decided to appoint a panel of special masters to determine how to redraw the state's voting districts.

Judge James Todd Russell suggested the voter registrars of Clark and Washoe counties and Carson City serve on the panel, and he wants them to focus on demo­graphics instead of party politics. He also suggested someone from the Legislative Counsel Bureau who is knowledgeable of computer software used to configure voting boundaries.

"I don't want anybody with political agendas," Russell told lawyers for the Republican and Democratic parties and secretary of state's office during a brief hearing.

Russell said none of the county election officials was aware of his idea before court, and quipped they'd probably "have a heart attack."

Don't expect Larry Lomax, Clark County's registrar of voters, to participate.

"I was very surprised when I first heard about this," Lomax said. "The judge had not talked to any of us, but the county manager is pretty adamant they do not want me to get into this process."

Lomax would not address why the county opposes his participation, saying he will do what he's ordered to do.

In a letter to Clark County commissioners, County Manager Don Burnette explained his opposition: "It is my opinion that Larry's effectiveness as Registrar of Voters is predicated on remaining independent and apolitical in his dealings with the political parties, and Larry's involvement on this proposed panel would jeopardize his credibility with the parties and the voting public. Furthermore, as you know, Larry does not bring any experience to the reapportionment decision-making process."

Once every decade, the U.S. Census Bureau counts citizens and releases population figures.

States must redraw their congressional and legislative districts to reflect the new numbers.

In the past decade Nevada's population, particularly in the Las Vegas area, grew sufficiently to warrant a fourth seat in the U.S. House. Also, all 21 state Senate and 42 Assembly districts must be redrawn.

During this year's legislative session, Democrats, who held a majority in both the Assembly and state Senate, passed two maps.

Gov. Brian Sandoval, however, vetoed both, saying they fractured the Hispanic vote and in so doing violated the Voter Rights Act of 1964.

Republicans were no less discriminatory in their map proposal, which packed Hispanics into one or two districts. Each side accused the other of violating the Voter Rights Act. Hispanics, according to the census, account for 26 percent of the state's population. Sandoval didn't have to veto the GOP proposal; it was never considered.

Sandoval then ceded control of re­districting to the courts after Republicans and Democrats filed lawsuits. He could have called a special session after the clock ran out on the 120-day limit, but decided both sides were at loggerheads.

The judge also could have ordered lawmakers into a special session and forced them to do their duty, but went a different route.

Russell gave lawyers until July 20 to suggest panel members and raise issues that should be addressed in the process or resolved before the panel begins its work.

Marc E. Elias, an attorney for the Democrats, said the court should first resolve that legal issue -- whether the previous Democratic plans were indeed illegal -- before proceeding with the challenge of drawing new maps.

Republican lawyer Mark A. Hutchinson said because those maps were never signed by the governor, they should not be the starting point for any new effort.

He suggested going back to 2001, the last time the Legislature approved new voting districts.

Without voting districts, would-be political candidates cannot begin organizing their campaigns because they don't know where the boundaries will ultimately fall.

Candidate filing begins in March for the 2012 general election, and is the "drop dead deadline" for when the issue needs to be resolved, said Deputy Attorney General Kevin Benson.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Doug McMurdo at or 702-224-5512.