Under the US Constitution, the federal government must conduct a census every 10 years. The population data gathered in each census is then used to equalize political representation through two processes: reapportionment and redistricting.
Reapportionment is the process of reassigning the 435 seats in the US House of Representatives according to population. In December, after the US Census Bureau released its state-level data, eight states with significant population growth—including Texas, Arizona, Utah and Nevada—gained congressional seats. States where the population grew at a lower rate, mostly in the Northeast and Midwest, lost seats.
(Despite its relatively high growth rate—13.2 percent—New Mexico did not gain a seat.)
Redistricting is the process whereby each state redraws its congressional and local-government districts to absorb its new population. According to the US Constitution and Supreme Court rulings, political districts—which include everything from state legislative districts down to school board and city council districts—must be made up of approximately equal populations in order to ensure the principle of “one person, one vote.”
If population growth occurs uniformly across a state, redistricting is easy: Districts remain roughly equal in population and require minimum adjustment.
But that’s not what has happened in New Mexico, Sanderoff says.
“The biggest challenge is that although New Mexico has grown by 13.2 percent in the last decade, the distribution of that population growth has not been even,” Sanderoff says.
Instead, growth has been concentrated along the Rio Grande corridor—Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Las Cruces—while it has stagnated in the eastern part of the state.
Since the number of state legislative seats is set at 112, districts with comparatively little population growth will have to expand in order to maintain populations equal to their faster-growing counterparts.
“If there are 42 state senators and 70 state House seats, there’s going to be 42 and 70 when we’re all done,” Sanderoff explains. “It’s just that if the east side doesn’t get base population, it may end up losing a seat—and that seat may emerge in Rio Rancho.”
In New Mexico, the state Legislature is responsible for redrawing state House and Senate seats, as well as New Mexico’s three congressional districts, and the Public Regulation Commission and state Board of Education districts.
Local governments, Sanderoff says, are responsible for redrawing their own districts. In Santa Fe, the Board of County Commissioners, City Council and Santa Fe Public Schools Board of Education will redistrict in 2011, either by using their own staffs or by contracting with a company like Research & Polling.
Officially, redistricting can’t begin until the Census Bureau releases precinct-level data, which is scheduled to happen on or before April 1. And although Sanderoff says it’s hard to know exactly which districts are at stake until that data comes in, legislators, lobbyists and party veterans are quietly preparing for battle.