CARSON CITY — Lawyers for the Democratic Party accuse Republican legislators of “racial gerrymandering” by drawing up a redistricting plan that would deliberately pack Hispanics into a few election districts to limit the number of candidates of their ethnic background who can win legislative and congressional seats.
But Republican lawyers say the Democrats’ redistricting plan — vetoed twice by Gov. Brian Sandoval — “intentionally fractured the Latin community” by spreading Hispanics around many districts so it would be easier to elect white Democrats.
Such points were made by the two parties in legal briefs filed in Carson City District Court in advance of a 9 a.m. Wednesday hearing on redistricting before Judge James T. Russell.
Redistricting is important to both political parties because how election districts are drawn can give one party an advantage in legislative and congressional races for the next 10 years.
How Russell, the son of former Republican Gov. Charles Russell, rules on the Hispanic matter and other legal points will guide a three-member panel as it soon starts redistricting — redrawing election district boundaries to reflect population changes shown by the 2010 census.
Whatever decision the panel makes and Russell then approves probably will be appealed to the state Supreme Court. Redistricting issues must be settled by the first Monday in March when candidates can file for offices up for election in 2012.
Assembly Minority Leader Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, said Wednesday he hopes appeals can be avoided. Once the panel completes its work, he said the governor should call the Legislature into a special session to adopt its plan.
“We need to agree that their plan is as good as we can get and adopt it,” Goicoechea said. “It will be well worth the cost of a special session if we can avoid lawsuits.”
DEMOCRATS CITE VOTING ACT
Hispanics now make up 26.5 percent of Nevada’s population, and both parties profess in the briefs a desire to help them in electing candidates of their ethnic background.
The key law on which Russell must make his ruling is section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. The law states policies such as redistricting plans cannot give “less opportunity” for minorities “to elect representatives of their choice.” A U.S. Supreme Court decision classified Hispanics as a racial minority.
Las Vegas lawyer Bradley Schrager, representing Democrats, contends that Republicans want to reduce the influence of Hispanic voters by packing their population into a few Hispanic majority districts.
He said there is no requirement under the Voting Rights Act to create majority Hispanic districts unless it can be shown voters are prejudiced and won’t elect Hispanics to office.
In Nevada, he argues, there is “no evidence whatsoever that white (Nevada) voters vote as a bloc to defeat candidates preferred by Hispanics.”
He noted Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson, D-Reno, won in election last year in a 24 percent Hispanic district, while Assemblywoman Irene Bustamante Adams, D-Las Vegas, won in a 31.8 percent Hispanic district.
Nonetheless, some Latinos want a majority Hispanic congressional district to elect the first Nevada Hispanic member of Congress, although every Hispanic legislator, including state Sen. Ruben Kihuen, voted earlier this year for the Democrats’ redistricting plan, which would spread their population through many districts. No Hispanic Republicans serve in the Legislature.
Kihuen, D-Las Vegas, already has announced his candidacy for Congress and would have the most to gain from a majority Hispanic congressional district. He did not return a call for comment.
GOP DECRIES FRAGMENTATION
Republican lawyers Mark Hutchison and Jacob Reynolds argue that the Democrats’ plan “treats the Hispanic population as a pie to be cut into three pieces.”
While a 59 percent Hispanic congressional district easily can be created in the downtown Las Vegas area, the Republican lawyers say the Democratic plan fragments the Hispanic population so that three white Democrats can be elected to congressional seats instead of candidates preferred by Latinos.
Southern Nevada resident Alex Garza, who represents the views of Hispanics who favor the Republican plan, argues majority Hispanic districts are needed because of white voter prejudice toward Latino candidates. Russell allowed Garza to participate in the case.
Most Hispanics are Democrats and vote in general elections for the Democratic candidate, he said in a brief prepared by his lawyers, David Koch and Daniel Stewart. But in primaries, white Democrats and Hispanic Democrats often have “different candidates of choice,” and the Latino candidates usually lose, he said.
On the other hand, Schrager contends Nevada voters have a record of electing Hispanics to statewide and legislative office without majority Latino districts.
Republican Sandoval was elected the state’s first Hispanic governor in 2010, and Hispanic and Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto was re-elected attorney general.
Two Hispanic Democrats serve in the 21-member state Senate, and six Hispanic Democrats are members of the 42-member Assembly. Hispanics, however, have more than one-quarter of the state population, much less than their legislative representation.
Only 19 percent of the state’s 1.12 million registered voters are Hispanic, Schrager said, and none of the majority Hispanic congressional and legislative districts proposed by Republicans would have majority Hispanic voting populations.
Russell on Aug. 4 named Carson City Clerk-Recorder Alan Glover, former legislative research analyst Bob Erickson and Las Vegas lawyer Thomas Sheet as special masters to carry out the redistricting requirements that legislators failed to complete before adjourning the 2011 session on June 7. Their task is expected to last two weeks. Russell may set a date Wednesday for the panel to start meeting. Once the panel finishes, its plan will be given to Russell to approve or reject.
A quick decision by Russell and the completion of redistricting by the panel would provide more time for the state Supreme Court to hear an appeal and make any ruling before candidate filing starts in March.
Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at firstname.lastname@example.org or 775-687-3901.Republican redistricting brief
Democratic redistricting brief
Alex Garza redistricting brief