By Ken Ritter
LAS VEGAS — A court battle has begun over a League of Women Voters of Nevada effort to amend the state constitution to have an appointed commission, instead of the state Legislature, redraw congressional and legislative voting districts following the 2020 U.S. Census.
League President Sondra Cosgrove predicted Tuesday that a ballot initiative proposed to qualify for a statewide vote will withstand a lawsuit calling its wording inaccurate and misleading.
“We are confident our description of effect is legally sound and accurate, and we believe the lawsuit will be quickly resolved so that we can begin gathering signatures,” Cosgrove said.
The lawsuit filed Nov. 26 in state court in Carson City said a commission won’t work because there’s no funding for it and members would still be appointed through the partisan Legislature.
“We don’t think it is independent at all,” said attorney Kevin Benson, representing the plaintiff, Rev. Leonard Jackson. Benson said Jackson sued as a voter who could be affected by the law, not in his role as pastor of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in North Las Vegas.
“Legislative leadership directly appoints the commission leadership,” the attorney said. “Obviously you’re not going to get appointed unless you have political connections.”
Also, nothing would prevent a commission member from being appointed or elected to serve in a legislative district that he or she created, Benson said.
The proposed initiative was submitted Nov. 4 to the Nevada secretary of state by the legal entity Fair Maps Nevada PAC, backed by the league.
Cosgrove said the league has been working to rewrite state redistricting rules around the country after the U.S. Supreme Court decided in June that federal courts should not intervene in disputes about politicians manipulating voting maps to make it easier for their party to win elections — a process called gerrymandering.
In Nevada, Cosgrove said proponents fully expected the two main political parties, Democrats and Republicans, to try to kill the idea of naming a non-partisan commission to draw state voting maps.
“Every time an effort is made to level the playing field and bring equality to bear, there will be opposition from those that benefit from the status quo,” she said.
Cosgrove said the funding issue would resolve itself because, as a constitutional mandate, the Legislature would be obligated to fund a commission.
The lawsuit countered that would violate the separation of powers — executive, legislative and judicial — because a court can’t order the Legislature to allocate money for a specific purpose.
Cosgrove said the initiative calls for one appointment each by the majority and minority leaders of the Legislature, with the remaining three commission members coming from voters who are neither Republican nor Democrat.
Backers need about 98,000 signatures by June 16 to put the initiative before voters next November. It would need to pass in 2020 and again in 2022 to become law. Voting districts could be redrawn in 2023.
The lawsuit also names Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, Nevada’s top elections official, as a defendant. Her office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
An attempt in 2011 by the Democratic-controlled Legislature to draw statewide voting districts was vetoed by then-Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican.
Sandoval said the maps violated the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 because none of the four congressional districts included a Hispanic majority, even though Nevada is more than one-quarter Latino and Hispanic.