The New Mexico Supreme Court's Feb. 10 order rejecting the latest New Mexico House of Representatives redistricting plan sent some Roundhouse Republicans into a fury.
The high court order rejected a plan approved by former District Judge James Hall, which favored one of Gov. Susana Martinez' maps over one submitted by legislative Democrats. The order sends the case back to Hall, who is encouraged to draw new lines by Feb. 27.
"They seem to be saying it's more important to have a partisan Democratic majority than one person, one vote," state Sen. Rod Adair, R-Chaves, told SFR on Feb. 10. "Some people say [the order] put in a 43-27 permanent Democratic majority with uncompetitive seats."
Adair wasn't willing to directly attribute the latter statement to himself, instead citing unidentified grumblings in the Roundhouse.
In truth, the order doesn't put any redistricting plan into effect; instead, it sends Hall back to the drawing board. But Adair's rhetoric highlights how many Republicans are feeling right now.
The one person, one vote reference alludes to a 1964 US Supreme Court ruling that legislative districts must serve roughly equal populations. (If one district had more people than another, the vote of each person within that district would in effect be worth less than the vote of a person who lived in a smaller district.)
Republicans used that principle to appeal the state Supreme Court's order to a US District Court on Feb. 13, arguing that the order "instructed the state district court judge to sacrifice the overriding constitutional requirement of population equality in order to…achieve a map more favorable to Democrats." The appeal, filed on behalf of two prospective state House candidates and a Curry County resident, urges a three-judge panel overturn the order.
The details are devilish, and the stakes are high—so in order to help you understand why all of this matters, SFR has crafted an easy, step-by-step guide to redistricting.
Why is redistricting so political?
Every 10 years, New Mexico has to redraw lines to accommodate population shifts. The only way to do that, says House Floor Majority Leader Ken Martinez, D-Cibola, is to consolidate certain districts and run politicians of the same party against each other.
"[It's] a very difficult thing to do," Martinez tells SFR. "It's akin to political death."
The overall political makeup of the state is also in jeopardy each time new lines are drawn. Democrats, who have controlled the Legislature for more than 80 years, want to protect their majority, House Minority Leader Tom Taylor, R-San Juan, says.
“It’s a difficult thing for them when the House moves in the direction that it has,” Taylor says, referring to the 2010 election of the most state House Republicans since the 1960s.
Who are the players?
• Susana Martinez is playing a larger role than most governors in New Mexico’s redistricting history. In the early 2000s, Republican Gov. Gary Johnson vetoed Democratic maps, but he didn’t submit his own alternative plans the way Martinez did after vetoing the Legislature’s maps last fall [cover story, Dec. 21: “Lines in the Suit”].
• State Reps. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, and Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Bernalillo, have each filed lawsuits arguing for and against various plans, including the hotly contested state House of Representatives plan.
• The New Mexico Supreme Court, according to its Feb. 10 order, is weighing in for the first time on “the overarching legal principles that govern court-drawn redistricting.” All of the justices are Democrats except for Chief Justice Charles Daniels, an independent who recused himself from the case because of his involvement as a lawyer in redistricting a decade ago.
In September, the Legislature held a special session meant to focus solely on drawing new maps. Democrats passed plans that Susana Martinez quickly rejected for "promoting partisan goals."
In the state House maps, Republicans had a problem with Democrats' attempts to keep party-friendly districts in the state's north-central region intact, which Republicans say didn't match the true population trends.
After several cases were filed in various courts, the state Supreme Court consolidated them and designated Hall to make a decision. For the House, Hall ultimately chose Martinez' map over the Legislature's because it had the least amount of population change, or deviation. Egolf and Maestas then appealed Hall's ruling to the Supreme Court. Some of their concerns include preserving communities of interest, such as those primarily composed of Hispanics and Native Americans.
Other redistricting plans, including for US Congress and state Senate, were resolved relatively easily.
What’s a “community of interest”?
While new maps must adhere to one person, one vote, they must also take minority voters into account, per the federal Voting Rights Act. Communities of interest can also include cities, towns, county lines, historic neighborhoods and more.
Maestas says the more compact a plan is, the more likely it will abide by communities of interest. He says the Republican plan broke up voting districts in Deming, Las Vegas and Silver City.
“If the district looks like roadkill, it’s probably a bad idea,” Maestas tells SFR.
Why did the Supreme Court reject Hall’s map?
Hall chose the governor’s plan based on its minimal deviation, preserving the one person, one vote principle. The high court order, however, says Hall relied too heavily on keeping the populations equal and not enough on other redistricting principles. Although the governor’s plan adhered to an approximately 1 percent population deviation, the high court order says Hall should have allowed the deviation to be slightly larger—in the past, it’s gone up to 5 percent—while also taking into consideration other guidelines. Specifically, the court order focuses on political bias in Hall’s choice of a map that favors one party (in this case, the Republicans) over another.
Hall chose a plan with a politically biased outcome—which is to say that, all other things equal, the governor's plan would benefit Republicans more than Democrats in future elections.
According to the state Supreme Court, Hall's mistake was his failure to properly weigh the political ramifications of the map's outcome.
"It may be suggested that those who redistrict and reapportion should work with census, not political, data and achieve population equality without regard for political impact," the order reads, quoting the 1973 US Supreme Court case Gaffney v. Cummings. "But this politically mindless approach may produce, whether intended or not, the most grossly gerrymandered results."
Another part of the order reads that a court's adoption of a plan "that represents one political party's idea of how district boundaries should be drawn" isn't fair. One could argue, however, that the legislative maps Martinez vetoed are equally partisan.
The Supreme Court urged Hall to draw a new map by Feb. 27, but the federal court challenge could further delay the process. On Feb. 14, Martinez' general counsel, Jessica Hernandez, told the blog Capitol Report New Mexico that the administration intends to take the case all the way to the US Supreme Court. Ultimately, things need to be resolved by March 20 in order to hold elections as usual.