The odds favor the pols

Kyle Gillis

Just like at a casino, odds set by Silver State politicians favor the house.

In February, responding to the 2010 decennial census, the Nevada Legislature will begin redrawing voting districts.

However, when the state last drew districts, in 2001, those districts proved uncompetitive.

That’s what election results from the Nevada secretary of state show. Of the 162 assembly elections since the 2001 redistricting, only 29, or 17 percent, were competitive elections. State senate races were no closer, with only five, or 9 percent of them, proving competitive.

According to Samuel Issacharoff, constitutional law professor at New York University, an election is competitive if the candidates finish within 10 percentage points of one another. Alternatively, an election is considered a landslide if the winning candidate wins by more than 10 percentage points.

Since 2002, 23 percent of Nevada assembly-district elections resulted in candidates receiving 70 percent or more of the vote, according to an NPRI calculation, which also showed that incumbents won 83 percent of the time.

Essentially, in four out of every five races, winning candidates hardly broke a sweat.

“Nevada’s districts are always a problem,” said David Damore, associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “By the end of the [redistricting] session, there’s always a mess.”

The redistricting process is one cause for the uncompetitive elections. According to Jennifer Steen, assistant professor of political science at Arizona State University, when politicians redistrict, the temptation to look out for themselves is too great.

“Weird-shaped districts don’t always mean political tampering, because some are necessary to accommodate minority groups and communities of interest,” said Steen. “But partisan shenanigans are more than likely to come up in the process.”

In the 2000 election, Arizona passed Prop 106, creating an independent commission to redraw Arizona’s congressional and legislative districts. The commission consists of five members — two Democrats, two Republicans and an independent — who are selected through an application process.

“We ended up with a commission of very capable people that was balanced politically,” said James Huntwork, a Phoenix-based lawyer who was the first member appointed to the commission. “The risk is getting people on the commission who would try and manipulate the process.”

Huntwork admitted the commission’s map wasn’t entirely different from the old, politically drawn map. But he stated one of commissioners’ goals was to eliminate highly uncompetitive districts, and on that front he believes they succeeded.

“You can create competitive districts by creating districts with groups of people who vote independently,” Huntwork said. “Some districts were more compact and some looked geometrically better.”

California is also attempting to give citizens the redistricting power. In 2008, voters passed Proposition 11, establishing a commission similar to Arizona’s, to define state legislative districts. On the 2010 ballot, two more proposals focus on redistricting: Prop 20 would give the commission the power to also redraw congressional districts, while Prop 27 would abolish the commission and return the redistricting power to the state.

“The one critical concept,” said Bill Mundell, former chairman of Californians for Fair Redistricting, “is that we must take the power to draw the lines away from the state legislatures, who will always create both state and federal districts that favor themselves and their party.”

“You can never take politics out of redistricting,” he said in an e-mail response, “but as a minimum goal, we must take the politicians out of redistricting.”

Mundell is the executive producer of the new documentary, “Gerrymandering” — currently being shown at various film festivals — and has campaigned around the country for redistricting reform. In a campaign season featuring high-profile gubernatorial and senate races, he believed a film would be the most effective way to showcase the redistricting challenge.

“It has always proven very difficult to educate the average voter on how redistricting works, and especially on how it controls the results of elections before they are held,” Mundell said. “I realized that a film had the chance to reach a mass audience in a way that no previous vehicle for reform had ever been able to do.”

On a national level, U.S. Rep. John Tanner, D-Tenn., has introduced two bipartisan bills intended to make the redistricting process a public affair. The Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act (H.R. 3025) would require states to set up independent commissions like Arizona’s, and the Redistricting Transparency Act (H.R. 4918) would require states to put maps of the proposed districts on the Internet and allow public feedback.

“On a national scale, politicians on the extreme left and extreme right only report to their parties, and unless something is done it’s going to be another round of partisan politics,” said Randy Ford, chief of staff for Rep. Tanner.

Currently, both bills are referred to House subcommittees, but with census data coming up, Ford said there’s an urgency to get one or both of the bills passed.

“[The current redistricting process] is not a system our Founders envisioned,” Ford said. “It’s not a system by the people and it’s become way too partisan.”

According to Mundell, while citizens have a right to sue if they feel their district has been gerrymandered, pushing for legislative reform or ballot initiatives is a better solution.

“I think people understand that politicians drawing their districts are looking out for their own best interests,” said Stacy Gordon, professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno. “It’d be hard not to have partisan districts because Nevada is so segregated politically, but more competitive districts are important, especially for moderates.”

State Assemblyman Don Gustavson, R-Washoe, says he is open to the idea of a nonpartisan commission in Nevada, but skeptical about whether a commission would remain nonpolitical.

“We need to try to keep politics out of it, but even if they’re totally nonpolitical, they’re influenced by someone political,” said Gustavson.

Huntwork wants to see the Arizona commission go through another redistricting session before deeming it a complete success.

“The jury is still out on the process, but we’ll wait another cycle and see what happens,” Huntwork said. “For me, it was an extremely interesting experience sitting on the commission and I’m glad we have the opportunity to do it.”