On the local level, the stakes may be lower, but potential conflicts remain. In Santa Fe, county commissioners, city councilors and school board members are all responsible for redrawing their own districts—and Lass extends his criticism of the system’s inherent conflict of interest even to nonpartisan governments.
“I’d like to see an independent redistricting commission at the city level,” Lass says. “I’d like to see it done by people who aren’t the incumbents drawing their own districts.”
But Erle Wright, a data integration administrator who headed Santa Fe County’s in-house redistricting in 2001, says the process was amicable.
“The commission pretty much just said, ‘Show us what you’ve got,’” Wright recalls. “We came up with about a dozen different scenarios and presented them with about eight at their first public hearing.”
Lamb, the county’s chief deputy clerk, says redistricting is less contentious in Santa Fe County because commissioners have term limits, so they’re not trying to secure political longevity. All five are also Democrats.
“Santa Fe is so heavily partisan in one party,” Lamb explains. “That really takes a big edge off of it. If this county was more partisan, I think you’d see a lot more fervor in the redistricting process.”
Each county is responsible for overseeing the actual drawing of its precincts: the building blocks that the state Legislature will then consolidate into House and Senate districts. Santa Fe County has 87 precincts for a population of approximately 137,532 people.
For the past year, Wright and Lamb have been working with the US Census Bureau to ensure that Santa Fe’s 87 precincts are delineated by well-defined, visible boundaries such as roads and rivers.
In rural areas, Wright says, the county sometimes resorts to drawing boundaries along trails or ridgelines.
“They despise our boundaries,” he says, “but there [are] no choices.”
The City of Santa Fe, since its mid-1980s switch from at-large councilors to City Council districts, will also redraw its lines—a process Wright says may involve more political horse-trading.
“The population change to the south and west [of the city] is going to force some boundaries to shift, so it might be contentious on how they shift,” Wright tells SFR.
But District 1 City Councilor Patti Bushee says population growth doesn’t necessarily translate into a change in the number of active voters.
“District 3”—in the southwest part of the city—“is one of the fastest-growing districts, but there are very few voter participants,” Bushee says. “So that doesn’t necessarily increase representation, if people don’t show up to vote for those that are going to represent them.”
Bushee says the concept of returning to at-large city councilors—floated by District 1 hopeful Russell Simon in last year’s municipal elections—often arises, but during charter discussions of the past few years, the idea was rejected.
According to Santa Fe City Clerk Yolanda Vigil, the city usually contracts with a firm to draw up potential options for redrawing City Council districts, on which city councilors then vote. In 2001, Vigil says, the city hired Research & Polling.
Between Sanderoff’s proposals and councilors’ amendment requests, “They went back and forth a few times,” Vigil says.
Though the city plans to annex additional areas in 2012 and 2013, Vigil says this year’s redistricting will apply only within existing city limits. But given that the areas slated for annexation in 2012 are also southwest of the city, annexation could produce a significant shift in the city’s population distribution.
If that happens, Vigil says, the City of Santa Fe may have to redistrict before the 2020 census.