CARSON CITY — Despite court approval of political district boundaries in Nevada, Democrats may have managed to get a leg up in the politically divided state’s most recent redistricting process, an analysis by The Associated Press found.
Using a statistical method recently cited by a federal appeals court to identify gerrymandering, the AP analysis, released Sunday, found that Republican-skewed districts were far more common than Democratic ones in U.S. House and statehouse districts nationwide in 2016. But it indicates that the Nevada Assembly’s 42 districts gave more favor overall to Democrats in 2016 than was the case in the lower chamber of any other state legislature in the country.
Democrats and redistricting drafters in Nevada reject the notion of a Democratic advantage, pointing out that Republicans won control of the Legislature in one of the three elections since the current district lines were implemented.
“The competitive races we’ve seen in recent election cycles speak for themselves. Nevada is a swing state full of highly contested battleground districts at the state and federal level,” Nevada Democratic Party spokesman Stewart Boss said. “Democratic success at the ballot box in Nevada has always been driven by quality candidates and a strong state party committed to registering voters and building an aggressive ground game.”
State legislators redraw the boundaries of their own 42 Assembly and 21 Senate districts as well as Nevada’s four congressional districts following the release of updated population data from the census every 10 years. Changes require the governor’s approval.
In 2011, Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed two redistricting plans that the Democratic-controlled Legislature sent him.
Facing outdated districts, members of both the Democratic and Republican parties sued, forcing the judiciary to step in. Judge James Russell tasked three nonpartisan special masters with drafting a plan for fair, compact and evenly distributed districts.
“The fact of the matter is we didn’t draw the lines trying to create party preference,” former special master Thomas Sheets said this week. “We did our best, and we certainly tried to be fair and we certainly didn’t do anything that was partisan — that we thought.”
Sheets, retired Carson City Clerk/Recorder Alan Glover and retired Legislative Counsel Bureau Research Director Robert Erickson pored over the population data and held two full days of public hearings before submitting a plan that the judge called reasonable and compliant with legal requirements. Russell ratified nearly every component of their plan in October 2011 and applauded their work in his final order. He declined to comment for this story.
No one appealed the court’s district lines. “We got to a result that at the time everybody seemed to be OK with,” Sheets said.
According to the AP analysis, Assembly Democrats enjoyed an outsized number of seats in relation to their share of the vote in 2016, when Republican candidates for the Assembly won about 15 percent more votes than Democratic candidates. Nevada Assembly districts resulted in the nation’s most Democratic-skewed lower chamber.
Nevada’s four U.S. House districts tilted Democratic, too. But political scientists warn against applying the formula to congressional districts in states with fewer than seven seats. Nevada’s relatively few seats in the U.S. House and Statehouse mean small changes in membership can have a significant impact on the whole.
But had the AP analyzed the Republican-controlled 2015 Nevada Legislature, Sheets said, “my guess is they’d (have) come up with an entirely different answer, and that’s the problem with formulas.”
Efficiency gap’ formula
The AP analyzed 2016 results using an “efficiency gap” formula comparing the statewide average share of the vote that a party receives in each district with the statewide percentage of seats it wins.
The AP analysis excluded state senates because results would span multiple elections.
Nevada and Colorado were the only two presidential “swing states” among just eight state legislatures determined to favor Democrats in 2016.