When it came to the controversial subject of redrawing Clark County’s voting districts in the middle of a decade, Rory Reid was hoping for some kind of consensus among his fellow county commissioners.
What he got on Tuesday was a heated debate punctuated with frequent use of the dreaded g-word: gerrymandering.
The argument revolved around something called “revised Plan Z,” which is the latest attempt to redraw the boundaries and balance the populations in the seven commission districts.
More than 343,000 residents would wind up with a new district and a new representative under the plan.
Three other plans previously under consideration would have affected more people, said Don Burnette, chief administrative officer for the county. This latest version brings the populations of the seven districts to within 17,500 of each other while accounting for different rates of growth in each district to maintain the balance as long as possible, he said.
Under the current boundaries, a population gap of about 45 percent exists between the smallest and largest district. Without a change, that gap is projected to grow to 77 percent by the end of the decade, when redistricting usually occurs after the release of new census figures.
There’s just one problem with the current plan, commissioners Tom Collins and Chris Giunchigliani said: The commission has no legal authority to redistrict itself in the middle of a decade.
“I think this is a waste of time and money,” Giunchigliani said.
But as several county officials said, not everyone agrees about the extent of the county’s authority. Though the Legislative Counsel Bureau argues that the commission cannot redistrict itself, the Nevada attorney general and the Clark County district attorney cite circumstances under which the law allows the practice.
Reid said the commission’s choice is clear.
“The Legislative Counsel Bureau does not advise us legally; the district attorney does. I think we need to look to our counsel for guidance,” he said.
Tuesday’s debate ended with a split vote on whether to move ahead with revised Plan Z. The motion by Commissioner Bruce Woodbury passed 4-3, with Collins, Giunchigliani and Lawrence Weekly lining up against the idea.
The plan will be introduced in the form of a new ordinance at the Aug. 21 commission meeting. After that, county officials will conduct one or two public meetings on the plan before bringing it back for an official public hearing and possible adoption at the Sept. 11 commission meeting.
The effort would mark the first county redistricting undertaken without the benefit of a recent U.S. census, conducted once every 10 years.
Woodbury said he has been calling for the county to adopt the practice of mid-decade redistricting since the 1990s. “I believe we should move forward with this,” he said.
Burnette said he does not blame Woodbury. The long-time commissioner presides over the largest district by far, with more than 327,000 constituents compared with about 210,000 in Weekly’s district.
“It’s a huge geographical area and a lot of people. That translates to a lot more work for him,” Burnette said of Woodbury’s district.
In addition to balancing the districts, Burnette said, revised Plan Z seeks to eliminate some of the unusual boundary lines and odd-shaped protrusions that came from more overtly political redistricting efforts in the past.
In what he called an out and out case of gerrymandering in 2001, Burnette said a narrow slice was carved out of District D and placed in District B to take in the new home of “former commissioner and current prisoner (Mary) Kincaid-Chauncey.” As a result, a large concentration of Hispanic residents saw their voting bloc torn apart.
“This needed to get fixed,” and it is fixed in revised Plan Z, Burnette said.
Woodbury likewise described some of the changes made in 2001 as “a very severe case of gerrymandering.”
Giunchigliani said the latest effort began the same way in 2005.
“Two years ago, it was for Lynette Boggs McDonald, who wanted to make her district more Republican. Thankfully Susan Brager won, and the issue was moot,” she said.
The most notable benefactor of the current plan is Commissioner Chip Maxfield. In a district that already skews Republican, he stands to see his party’s registration edge increase by almost 2 percentage points.
That’s the problem with redistricting, Collins said; intentional or not, somebody always wins.
“Redistricting is political. It is nothing more than political,” he said. “If you want better representation, go to the Legislature and get two more seats put on. There’s enough chairs. There’s enough microphones.”