Redrawing New Mexico

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

Brian Sanderoff has been in charge of redrawing New Mexico's political districts for the past three decades. Seated at a polished wooden table at Research & Polling Inc., the Albuquerque-based company he heads, Sanderoff leans forward, stretching two long arms in either direction, and describes the standoff that occurred in the state Legislature 10 years ago:

"Basically, they appointed three Democratic senators and three Republican senators, and they said, 'Go to Research & Polling—this table—and don't come out until you have a plan that everyone can live with.'"

Sanderoff has sandy, thinning hair and an easy smile, and though he spends his days steeped in databases, he's good at explaining complex issues—like redistricting—in simple terms.

"We sat there for a couple days, in this room—the computers and the legislative leadership and my staff—and they developed a plan," Sanderoff recalls. "Was it a perfect plan? No. But they needed to come up with a plan that the Democrats, Republicans and the governor could live with."

In the contentious world of redistricting, such a plan is a small miracle. By the time the six state senators were convening in Research & Polling's rectangular conference room,several redistricting plans had already been debated and passed by the Democrat-controlled state Legislature—only
to be vetoed by Republican then-Gov. Gary Johnson.

"Whatever party has the majority typically will draw a plan that benefits them," Sanderoff says. "The Democrats thought it was a reasonable plan and thought they could've gone much further in harming Republicans, but the Republicans had a different perspective," he says. "That's politics."
This year, a similar battle will likely unfold. Despite Republican gains in the state House of Representatives during the November 2010 elections, the New Mexico Legislature is still dominated by Democrats. But Republican Gov. Susana Martinez will have the power to veto any redistricting plan that doesn't give equal consideration to GOP interests.

Veterans of the redistricting process say it's consistently fraught with political infighting—not just between the two parties, but also among members of the same party.

"Redistricting is perhaps the most intensely personal dynamic present in the legislative process," New Mexico state Sen. Rod Adair, R-Chaves, tells SFR. "I have seen, in the majority party, just as much intraparty elbowing as there is interparty."

And a heated 2010 election season—which vaulted Republicans into power in the US House of Representatives and, in New Mexico, captured eight state House seats and the governorship for the GOP—is widely considered a litmus test for both public sentiment and partisan assertiveness.

"At the [state] Legislature, this will turn into a bitter fight," Denise Lamb, the chief deputy clerk for Santa Fe County Bureau of Elections, predicts. "There will be two members of the same party that are colleagues pitted against each other, and then you'll have the Ds and the Rs pitted against each other. It's very ugly."

Under the US Constitution, the federal government must conduct a census every 10 years. The population data gathered in each census is then used to equalize political representation through two processes: reapportionment and redistricting.

Reapportionment is the process of reassigning the 435 seats in the US House of Representatives according to population. In December, after the US Census Bureau released its state-level data, eight states with significant population growth—including Texas, Arizona, Utah and Nevada—gained congressional seats. States where the population grew at a lower rate, mostly in the Northeast and Midwest, lost seats.

(Despite its relatively high growth rate—13.2 percent—New Mexico did not gain a seat.)

Brian Sanderoff, who heads the Albuquerque-based Research & Polling, is in charge of drawing the state’s redistricting plans in 2011.

Redistricting is the process whereby each state redraws its congressional and local-government districts to absorb its new population. According to the US Constitution and Supreme Court rulings, political districts—which include everything from state legislative districts down to school board and city council districts—must be made up of approximately equal populations in order to ensure the principle of "one person, one vote."

If population growth occurs uniformly across a state, redistricting is easy: Districts remain roughly equal in population and require minimum adjustment.

But that's not what has happened in New Mexico, Sanderoff says.

"The biggest challenge is that although New Mexico has grown by 13.2 percent in the last decade, the distribution of that population growth has not been even," Sanderoff says.

Instead, growth has been concentrated along the Rio Grande corridor—Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Las Cruces—while it has stagnated in the eastern part of the state.

Since the number of state legislative seats is set at 112, districts with comparatively little population growth will have to expand in order to maintain populations equal to their faster-growing counterparts.

"If there are 42 state senators and 70 state House seats, there's going to be 42 and 70 when we're all done," Sanderoff explains. "It's just that if the east side doesn't get base population, it may end up losing a seat—and that seat may emerge in Rio Rancho."

In New Mexico, the state Legislature is responsible for redrawing state House and Senate seats, as well as New Mexico's three congressional districts, and the Public Regulation Commission and state Board of Education districts.

Local governments, Sanderoff says, are responsible for redrawing their own districts. In Santa Fe, the Board of County Commissioners, City Council and Santa Fe Public Schools Board of Education will redistrict in 2011, either by using their own staffs or by contracting with a company like Research & Polling.

Officially, redistricting can't begin until the Census Bureau releases precinct-level data, which is scheduled to happen on or before April 1. And although Sanderoff says it's hard to know exactly which districts are at stake until that data comes in, legislators, lobbyists and party veterans are quietly preparing for battle.
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." 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?" 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."

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez has spoken in favor of an independent redistricting commission, but lawmakers are skeptical about creating one in time for 2011 redistricting.
Credits: Alexa Schirtzinger

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. Redistricting between censuses is not without precedent, but it does bring to mind the seminal redistricting battle of this century: the scandal surrounding former US House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who pioneered the tactic of interim redistricting.

In 2002, DeLay created two political action committees that poured $3.2 million into seven Texas House races. After all seven Republicans won, DeLay pushed for a redistricting plan that would deliver more seats to the Texas congressional delegation in Washington, DC.

"[H]e saw an opportunity to help the Republicans stay in power in Washington," US Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told The New Yorker in March 2006. DeLay's justification for the plan, according to The New Yorker, was as follows: "with 57 percent of Texas voters backing Republicans for Congress, it was only fair that the GOP control more than 15 of the 32 seats in the US House."

State Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, says he hopes for collaboration between Democrats and Republicans on redistricting.

The plan worked—Texas Republicans gained four congress-ional seats—but, on Nov. 24, 2010, DeLay was convicted of laundering money in the 2002 Texas House race, and sentenced this week to three years in prison. And though the US Supreme Court upheld most aspects of the Texas redistricting plan in a 2006 decision, DeLay's name has become synonymous with political gerrymandering.

"The horror show of what Tom DeLay did in Texas—nobody wants that," New Mexico state Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, tells SFR. "In the ideal world, we should be able to get this done—Republicans and Democrats. That said, it's a highly partisan process."

Nor is that partisanship limited to in-state advocacy.

According to Democratic Party of New Mexico Executive Director Scott Forrester, New Mexico's historical swing-state status is likely to attract attention from both Republican and Democratic national organizations.

Deep-pocketed national Democrat groups, Forrester says, "will be very interested in the redistricting process here in New Mexico."

But so will organizations like the Republican Governors Association, a major Martinez campaign donor.

"I absolutely expect them to come in and spend millions and millions of dollars to redraw the lines so that their party has the advantage come 2012," Forrester predicts.

(Monty Newman, the chairman of the Republican Party of New Mexico, was unable to comment for this story before press time.)

Though subcommittees and potential alliances will form during the upcoming legislative session, the real movement on redistricting won't happen until this summer, when Sanderoff will begin turning the Census Bureau's population data into new district maps. The state Legislature is expected to hold a special session to debate and vote on the redistricting proposals this fall, after which they'll go to Martinez for approval.

Nationally and locally, the attack ads and partisan rancor of the 2010 elections are still fresh in voters' minds. And in New Mexico, the potential conflict between a Democratic Legislature and Republican governor—the same makeup that led to the contentious redistricting process of 2001—simmers just beneath the surface.

"Some very strong conservative, really business-oriented, anti-regulation, anti-immigration-type people really backed [Martinez' campaign for governor]," former House Speaker Raymond Sanchez says.

How she chooses to wield the veto pen on redistricting, Sanchez says, will be a bellwether—but where it actually lands is anyone's guess.

"It'll show her independence from those sort of influences—or her recognition that this is the philosophy that they have, and so [she's] going to help them," Sanchez says. "The fact of the matter is, Democrats lost the election. Diane [Denish] lost. That old saying: 'The queen is dead; long live the queen!'"

And all around her, political armies sharpen their knives.

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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