In Nebraska, the Unicameral Legislature draws congressional and state legislative
districts, subject to gubernatorial veto. Reformers attempted to gather signatures
in 2020 for a ballot initiative to create an independent citizens redistricting
commission. However, pandemic restrictions prevented that effort from
succeeding and no subsequent effort has been launched. The effectiveness of
advocates in Nebraska provided some important wins for communities despite a
partisan process. Legislators made clear that they would pay little attention to community of interest and district maps that advocates submitted, and Republican control of the Unicameral and the governor’s office ensured that some degree of partisanship would prevail. Despite these obstacles, advocates succeeded in keeping together several discrete communities of interest after draft maps threatened to split them.
Community of Interest Story
During the 2021 redistricting process, members of the public were given the opportunity to draw both full redistricting plans and communities of interest maps and to submit them for consideration through the web-based redistricting application MyDistricting Nevada. Over 500 users registered for an account with MyDistricting Nevada, and 50 redistricting plans were submitted as public proposals for Nevada’s congressional, state senate, and state assembly districts. Additionally, 11 communities of interest maps were submitted.
The Silver State Voices Coalition advocated keeping Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI), Native, and Latinx communities together. Though they successfully kept AAPI and Native communities together, the Latinx community in Las Vegas was split among three congressional districts. The new map redistributes about one in seven Latinx residents and decreases the demographic group’s share of the district from 45.1 percent to 35.5 percent. As a result, no district fully represents Latinx individuals, who account for roughly 4 out of every 10 Nevada residents.
In addition to the successful advocacy by Black residents of Douglas County, Geis pointed to Native American communities in the northeast section of Nebraska and a Latinx community in the city of Grand Island. In both cases, Common Cause Nebraska worked with local activists to support their advocacy and won changes to voting maps that kept communities whole.
Overall State Grade: C+
Although public advocacy in the form of map submissions may have had little direct influence on legislators who drafted maps, the organizing it entailed prepared advocates to react swiftly and forcefully to problematic draft maps. Victories on several fronts to improve representation for communities of color are rare in states in which legislators draw districts, which is why most of them earned a D or F grade this cycle. However, Nebraska avoided that fate because of the effectiveness of fights for Black, Native American, and Latinx voting rights in several pockets of the state. Legislators displayed the usual disinterest in public input that is standard for politician-led redistricting processes, telling advocates that “they weren’t paying any attention to the public-created maps,” according to Geis. However, they could not ignore the fierce response to communities activated by maps that threatened to disenfranchise them.
- Although a C+ is a decent grade for a legislature, wins for communities of color came only after initial drafts were drawn poorly and significant public pressure forced legislators’ hands. Nebraska is a ballot initiative state that allows voters to amend the state constitution. As a result, stripping the power to draw districts from legislators does not require the assent of those legislators. Building a coalition to pass a ballot initiative that would create an independent citizens redistricting commission ahead of the next redistricting cycle is key.
- Alternatively, advocates could consider reforms that address the challenges they faced in this redistricting cycle while leaving the power to draw districts in legislators’ hands. This could include, for example, adding a legal requirement enforced by state courts that the Unicameral consider maps submitted by the public. The presence of a ballot initiative option creates significant opportunities to find the reform that best fits Nebraska’s needs.