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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

Politics is only one ingredient in the broad mix of competing concerns that color redistricting. Race, ethnicity, incumbency and geography also play a significant role.

Aside from equal population in each district, the federal Voting Rights Act also stipulates that new districts be drawn in such a way so as not to dilute minority voting strength or break up “communities of interest”—a vague term used to encompass anything from the core of an incumbent’s existing district to an ethnic group. 

Former New Mexico House Speaker Raymond Sanchez says he’s glad to be off the hook for this year’s redistricting. “Those are tough enough when you have a Democratic governor, Senate and House.”

Precincts must be contiguous (no building a district out of little pockets of, say, Democrats scattered across the state) and districts must, to the extent possible, be compact (boxy, not long and squiggly).

In other words, “You can’t create snake-shaped districts just to pick up Hispanics across an interstate,” Sanderoff says.

At the same time, though, communities of interest often conflict.

“Let’s say, for example, someone wanted to create as many competitive districts as possible,” Sanderoff says, referring to Adair’s notion of an ideal district containing a roughly equal number of Republicans and Democrats. “One could argue it’s good public policy. But there are other places where creating a competitive district might go against communities of interest. For example, it could create a half-Indian reservation district and half Farmington. But the Indians [might] say, ‘Just give us a district where we can elect a candidate of our choice, and let Farmington do the same thing; we don’t have to constantly be fighting each other.’”

Until the detailed census data comes out, it’s difficult to predict exactly where this year’s biggest redistricting changes will occur. 

Still, the lopsidedness of New Mexico’s population growth all but guarantees that districts in areas of significant growth or stagnation—mostly eastern and central New Mexico—will be redrawn. (See SFR’s map on page 16.) But even redrawing just a few districts, Sanderoff says, can influence the entire state.

“There’s no one district that would be guaranteed to remain the same, even if its population happened to keep pace [with the rest of the state], because it’s going to be impacted by the whole region,” Sanderoff says. “Sometimes, when you make a significant change to a district, it affects five or six other districts. It’s a ripple effect.”

Sanderoff’s job is to draw whatever redistricting plans legislators request, so how that ripple effect actually plays out has hundreds of potential permutations.

“That’s where it gets political,” Sanderoff says. “It brings out intense feelings among legislators because nothing affects legislators more directly, politically, than changing the boundaries of their district.”

At this point, only one aspect of redistricting is assured: It will be hotly contested.

Some believe the entire redistricting process should be revamped. Legislators’ power to effectively draw their own districts is “a huge conflict of interest,” Rick Lass, the director of the electoral advocacy organization Voting Matters, says. 

For the past three years, Lass says, he’s helped introduce bills to establish an independent redistricting commission before the state Legislature. It hasn’t worked—New Mexico has never had one—but 12 states established redistricting commissions in 2001, and California made headlines by creating a citizens’ redistricting commission for the 2011 cycle.

“There needs to be nonpartisan, nonpolitical participation in determining some of these lines,” Meredith Machen, president of the League of Women Voters of Santa Fe County, tells SFR. “The bottom line is, if you’re going to do it fairly, you need to get a more neutral party to look at the lines and say, ‘What makes sense?’”

During her campaign, Gov. Martinez told political blogger Heath Haussamen that she would “support the implementation of an independent redistricting commission.” Martinez’ spokesman, Scott Darnell, tells SFR that statement “is our best articulation of her position on redistricting,” and that the governor’s office is unable to offer additional comment.

But despite support for the idea from some advocacy groups, Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez says the formation of such a commission would be “highly unlikely.”

The New Mexico Constitution empowers—but doesn’t require—the Legislature to draw its own districts.

Even so, Sanchez says, “I don’t think the Legislature is going to give up the right to redistrict. This process has gone on for a long time. Why all of a sudden do you want to change it, unless it’s for political purposes?”

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