In New Mexico, the once-a-decade exercise of redistricting—redrawing the boundaries of the state’s political districts—is giving lawmakers and political junkies a dose of déjà vu.
After the Democratically controlled state Legislature passed a series of redistricting plans this fall, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed them. Today, four of the five plans are undergoing what may prove to be a lengthy court battle—just like the one that cost New Mexicans upward of $3 million in 2001.
Federal law requires states to redraw the boundaries of their political districts every 10 years, after the US Census Bureau publishes updated population figures. The reasoning behind the process is simple: Every district, from Congress down to city council, must have a population roughly equal to every other district. This ensures that every voter, no matter where he or she lives, has equal influence in an election.
Over the past 10 years, New Mexico’s population growth has been concentrated in the Rio Grande corridor (largely in Albuquerque, Las Cruces and Santa Fe), prompting a political battle over which districts to expand or eliminate in order to create more seats in faster-growing areas.
State Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Bernalillo, for instance, who sued New Mexico Secretary of State Dianna Duran over each of the four disputed plans, says Albuquerque’s west side deserves more representation.
“Our No. 1 goal is to obtain at least two new seats in the [state] House of Representatives as a result of all the growth we have experienced on the west side,” Maestas tells SFR. “We are attempting to implement one person, one vote, which is the bedrock of our democracy.”
But Maestas’ plan may also give Democrats an edge—a result that illustrates what some perceive as the inherent conflict of interest in allowing legislators to redraw their own districts. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 21 states, including California, now employ independent redistricting commissions to avoid lawmakers’ tendencies to protect their own—and their political parties’—interests.
New Mexico House Speaker Ben Luján, D-Santa Fe, counters that independent commissions can be just as susceptible to political influence.
“Those independent committees also end up in court because people involved with redistricting are never impartial,” Luján says. “The issue is really about politics, so if we would have had a Democratic governor, this wouldn’t have happened.”
While a Democratic governor may have signed off on the Legislature’s plans, there’s no guarantee New Mexico would have avoided a court battle. In Texas, Republican Gov. (and presidential hopeful) Rick Perry signed off on the Republican-dominated state Legislature’s plan, which would have given Republicans even more seats. The US Department of Justice, however, rejected the plan; currently, it’s set to go before the US Supreme Court.
So far, New Mexico’s redistricting process isn’t looking quite as adversarial. Though legislators from both parties, interest groups such as the New Mexico League of United Latin American Citizens, and sovereign entities such as the Navajo Nation and Laguna Pueblo have raised various protests to the current redistricting plans, the leading congressional plan consists of a compromise between state Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, Martinez and others.
“There is a more open dialogue between opposing parties to reach some kind of consensus this time,” Luján says.
As of press time, no decisions had been made about any of the plans, which rest in the hands of retired District Court Judge James Hall. The congressional trial ended Dec. 6, and the state House of Representatives trial is scheduled to conclude near the end of December. Both the Senate and the Public Regulation Commission trials will take place in early 2012. Expert witnesses—including Brian Sanderoff, whose Albuquerque firm Research & Polling Inc. helped legislators design the original maps—and stakeholders representing Hispanic and Native minority groups are slated to testify.