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Redrawing New Mexico

This year, Democrats and Republicans will change the state’s political boundaries—but who will win?

January 12, 2011, 7:00 am

Historically, New Mexico’s redistricting process has been a litigious one. Since the 1960s, all but one of New Mexico’s redistricting plans ended up in court, sometimes with such fervent disagreement that the courts themselves had to impose redistricting plans. 

“New Mexico has had, unfortunately, some pretty infamous-looking districts,” Sanderoff says. In 1981, he says, “The New Mexico Legislature applied some very creative techniques, and there were numerous lawsuits, millions of dollars of litigation, which the Legislature kept losing.”

In 1981, a federal court ruled that the state’s plan violated the Voting Rights Act. As a result, New Mexico was placed in preclearance, a designation requiring that future redistricting plans first be approved by the US Department of Justice.

In 1991, after the DOJ pre-approved (and requested revisions to) New Mexico’s redistricting proposal, the state’s plan went into effect without litigation and, by 2001, New Mexico was again free to implement its own redistricting plans without the DOJ’s involvement.

That freedom led to a bitter partisan struggle. 

In 2001, despite several months of public hearings around the state and a special legislative session in September to formulate and approve redistricting plans, then-Gov. Johnson’s vetoes left New Mexico without any redistricting plans for the state House and Senate or congressional districts.

Since state law requires the Legislature to redistrict, litigation ensued. In the end, the courts imposed plans for the state House and congressional districts.

By the time redistricting was over, in 2003, the state had spent $5.2 million on the process—more than half of which went to legal fees.

In advance of this year’s redistricting, the Legislative Council Service, the legal and research staff for the state Legislature, has awarded a contract, capped at less than $1 million, to Research & Polling to provide the technical work for 2011’s redistricting. (Sanderoff says he’ll charge between $55 and $175 per hour.)

But, in a possible portent of things to come, the LCS has also hired three lawyers—two of whose firms helped defend the state in 2002.

Raymond Sanchez, a state representative from 1970-2000 and speaker of the New Mexico House from 1983-2000, says the 1981 redistricting was the most adversarial he’s seen. The conflict, he says, arose out of attempts by a coalition of Republicans and moderate Democrats that “tried to gerrymander a lot of people out of their respective districts.”

Gerrymandering—illegally drawing districts so as to confer an advantage on a particular group of voters—is a common accusation on both sides.

“Around the country, both parties have been guilty,” Adair, who works as a demographer and earned $63,000 in consulting fees and expert witness payments from the Republican party and the state in 2001, tells SFR. “The temptation is there to gerrymander.”

Adair says New Mexico Democrats tried to gerrymander in 2001; the plan Johnson vetoed, he says, would have made two of New Mexico’s three congressional seats safely Democratic. He points to recent figures on New Mexico voter registration—49 percent Democrat; 31 percent Republican; the rest “decline to state” or “other”—as evidence that the Democratic majority in both legislative houses represents an imbalance.

“If districts are not gerrymandered [this year], I think Republicans can be competitive throughout the state,” Adair says. 

That may be an accurate reflection of voter sentiment—at least from a Republican perspective.

“There’s always the political battle for one party to become the majority,” state Sen. Michael Sanchez, D-Valencia and the Senate majority leader, tells SFR. “Everybody’s trying to improve their numbers; that’s just politics.”

But no matter the level of partisan quarreling that ensues during this year’s redistricting process, Sanchez says, “There’s a systematic way to do it, following the law, and we’re going to do it the right way.”

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