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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

Redistricting: What Happens Next?

April 1, 2011: The US Census Bureau must release precinct-level population data by this date.

June-Aug. 2011: As legislators work with Research & Polling to develop redistricting plans, they will also likely hold public hearings on the potential plans around the state.

September 2011: The state Legislature will most likely hold a special session to vote on redistricting plans for the US Congress, and the state House and Senate, PRC and Board of Education.

January 2012: If signed by Gov. Susana Martinez, the new plans will go into effect by the beginning of the 2012 election cycle.

January 2013: The 113th US Congress, composed of representatives from newly drawn districts around the country, meets for the first time.

One Person, One Vote?

The concept of “one person, one vote”—a key rationale for redistricting plans based on equal population among districts—arose during the 1964 US Supreme Court case Reynolds v. Sims. But as many have since pointed out, equal population doesn’t necessarily translate into equal voting power because of different districts’ voting behavior and turnout.

“When it takes 10 people in one House district to elect a representative and it takes 2,000 in another district, those votes do not have equal weight,” Tom Warson, a former legislative analyst who helped design New Mexico’s 1981 redistricting plan, tells SFR.

In 1981, many of New Mexico’s precincts were still undefined so, instead of using census data to draw districts, legislators used a formula based on the number of votes cast—in effect, a measure not of warm bodies, but of actual voters.

As usual, litigation ensued. Ultimately, a federal court overturned the formula.

But Warson maintains that basing districts purely on population, without taking into account whether certain areas have, say, more children and therefore fewer voters, will elicit a new round of lawsuits after this year’s redistricting process concludes.

“The weight of a vote cast in one district has to be equal to the weight of a vote cast in another district,” Warson says. When populations are equalized without taking into account voting behavior, he says, “The voting turnouts vary astronomically.”

Eventually, Warson says, lawyers will realize that since voter turnouts fluctuate widely among districts, one vote in a high-turnout district is essentially worth less than one vote in a low-turnout district.

“We don’t know when the shoe is going to drop, but it is at some point,” Warson says. “It’s just such ripe territory for a huge series of lawsuits all across the country.”

In New Mexico and elsewhere, courts have rejected redistricting plans based solely on voter turnout. But Warson maintains he’s created a formula that takes into account both population and turnout. He has yet to disseminate it widely, since he says the need for such a formula won’t be apparent until legal challenges to population-based redistricting arise.

“At that point, and that point only, will they consider the formula,” he says. 

Let the legal wrangling begin.

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