Should Hispanic Las Vegans get their very own congressional district, or should they have to share with everybody else?
That’s one of the key questions that may be answered in a court hearing scheduled in Carson City today over Nevada’s ultra-tardy redistricting plan. And the political implications of the decision are significant.
Of course, that question should have been answered by the Nevada Legislature, which is charged under the state constitution with re-drawing the state’s political boundaries every 10 years, to account for changes in population. And while the state’s Democrats passed not one but two plans, both were vetoed by Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval as unfair. By the time state leaders got done with the budget, there wasn’t enough time for a compromise on redistricting.
Enter Carson City District Court Judge James Todd Russell, who now has the unhappy duty of taking on an inherently political task in the least politically way possible.
His first big decision will be to decide whether the federal Voting Rights Act makes drawing a Hispanic district mandatory.
Republicans — usually foes of creating special treatment for people based on ethnicity — have argued yes. They know Hispanics tend to vote for Democrats, and thus packing them into a single district would have the net effect of improving Republican prospects in the other three districts.
Democrats — usually fans of government intervention to help minorities — have argued against a Hispanic district. They’d rather those residents be scattered throughout several districts, thus improving Democratic prospects.
But the law in this case seems to side with the Democrats.
First, although there are more than 716,000 Hispanics overall living in Nevada, Democrats contend there are only 216,000 Hispanics who are eligible to vote (i.e., those who are citizens and older than 18). Since a congressional district has to contain 675,138 people exactly, and since not all Hispanic people live in the same neighborhood, there’s no mathematical way to draw a district with a Hispanic voting-eligible majority.
Second, there’s no evidence Hispanic residents of Nevada have been unable to elect candidates to office because they’ve been thwarted by the white majority. To the contrary, eight members of the state Legislature — two senators and six members of the Assembly — are Hispanic. And Gov. Brian Sandoval was elected in 2010 while running against perhaps the whitest white man in the state, although race had nothing to do with Sandoval’s victory.
Third, there’s no evidence that previous Legislatures have drawn district lines designed to intentionally discriminate against Hispanics, another key factor that might justify drawing a Hispanic district. With no past discrimination to remedy, and with Hispanic voters clearly able to elect members of their own community to office, it seems there’s no need to draw a Hispanic district.
“Thus, intentionally crafted majority-minority districts are a very specific remedy for a very specific problem,” the Democrats write in court papers. “Where the problem is not present or the remedy is impossible, the [Voting Rights] Act simply does not require majority-minority districts.”
Not surprisingly, all the Hispanic lawmakers (Democrats all) voted for the Democratic redistricting plan vetoed by Sandoval. A person’s desire to see a Hispanic majority district turns more on party registration than on ethnicity.
One possible outcome of today’s hearing: Judge Russell could decide that while a Hispanic district is not required under the law, the special panel he’s convened to actually draw the maps may try to create a district with a large Hispanic population anyway, if they see fit. That approach wouldn’t uphold the Republican argument that the law requires such a district, but it would allow for the possibility.
Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/SteveSebelius or reach him at 387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.