Cover Stories

Map Quest

On the heels of redistricting, advocates plan to push harder to remove lawmakers from the process

As New Mexico lawmakers debated the redrawing of voting districts this winter, predictable partisanship stoked race and class conflict both below the surface and out loud.

Some believe the racial makeup of new congressional districts comes close to striking the right balance; others say the altered boundaries foment polarization.

“That we are going to have a real opportunity to send another Hispanic member of our state to the Congress is very exciting for me,” said Sen. Michael Padilla, an Albuquerque Democrat.

“I have heard someone on the floor say that now it’s possible to have someone in CD2 who would be Hispanic...Is that the goal? Are we trying to elect people of particular ethnicities?” asked Sen. Gay Kernan of Hobbs—a Republican whose city largely moved from one congressional district to another in the change.

When it came to new state legislative maps during another debate, a plan to protect incumbents turned into a fight with a consortium of Native tribes standing firm against lawmakers.

While redistricting battles between political parties happen in every state, the divisions and alliances along New Mexico’s other demographic lines make its quest for fair maps in state and national offices even more complex.

At the end of the once-in-a-decade redistricting fight, the Legislature had the final say: The tribes and pueblos drew a hard line and ultimately won the legislative boundaries they favored when the governor signed a plan on Jan. 6. A new three-way split of congressional districts across New Mexico kept things equal for tribes and also resulted in a significant shift that gives Hispanic voters a majority in a district that has flip-flopped between the major parties as a battleground in recent years.

The approved maps in some ways mirror recommendations from an appointed committee for the 2021 redistricting process. Yet, the new Citizen Redistricting Committee’s (CRC) recommendations were just that: non-binding suggestions. The state’s legal scaffolding allows those with power to redraw maps to their own advantage—and they did.

With court battles still not out of the question, advocates for a power shift say a constitutional amendment would take the politics out of the state’s process. Meanwhile, incumbents are strategizing about how new congressional districts might change the political landscape amidst a national tug-of-war over control most experts expect to end in November with Democrats taking heavy losses.

While the pain and uncertainty—and even the progress—of the special session is fresh in mind, Rep. Natalie Figueroa, D-Albuquerque, has already met with drafters and potential co-sponsors, and plans to introduce a Joint Resolution for such a constitutional amendment in the regular session that begins on Jan. 18. Whether majorities in both chambers of the Legislature will vote to divest themselves of authority in redistricting remains in question, and even if they do, the decision would then be in the hands of voters.

“We are girding our loins for a long battle,” Figueroa told reform advocates in a Zoom call earlier this month, “but it’s important. Don’t anyone think it’s going to happen quickly.”

Prior to the 2021 bill that established the CRC, nearly 20 proposed bills have attempted to decouple redistricting from the Roundhouse. All have failed. Kathleen Burke, project director for Fair Districts for New Mexico, says the nonpartisan group hopes what political will exists is enough, especially in the Senate, which resisted transparency and made wholesale changes to maps with little explanation.

“There have been some shifting sands,” Burke tells SFR. “We have seen some failure to follow through, we have had some disappointments because while legislators might understand the ethical problem at hand, when they are looking at losing their own seat or perhaps losing the opportunity to be a strong voice for their party or their constituents, we have seen legislators equivocate.”

But Burke, a 20-year resident of the state who manages the project under the auspices of the League of Women Voters, says the special session might have kicked up some interest among lawmakers.

“I think there was quite a bit of frustration,” she tells SFR. “I think they might be able to see that there could be a better way for this to be done.”

Legislative leaders agreed before the start of the Dec. 6 special session the Senate would first work on Congressional maps while the state House of Representatives would take on new boundaries for legislative districts and the Public Education Commission.

The CRC had delivered a handful of recommended maps for each set of offices after holding extensive public meetings across the state and online over the summer and fall. Under state law, major party leadership and the state Ethics Board members appointed its members.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued a statement in her call noting she looked forward to “a productive and collegial session” where lawmakers would “carry out the people’s business thoughtfully and respectfully, in a way that honors this important work.”

Many onlookers say that’s not how the process went down.

None of the major maps adopted by the Legislature and signed by the governor are the same as any the CRC provided. The governor waited until the final day of the time period to sign or veto legislation to approve the final map for Senate districts. And the maps for Congress went through a chaotic machination before landing on her desk.

The state’s congressional districts previously created a northern, central and southern district. The newly approved plan, which includes about 706,000 residents in each district, features a northernmost District 3 that stretches deep into the oilpatch on its eastern edge while the central District 1 includes more rural counties in addition to the core Albuquerque metro area. District 2 in the south retains Las Cruces, Carlsbad and Silver City, and gains much of Albuquerque’s West side, but loses Roswell and most of Hobbs to District 3.

The new District 2 now contains 56% Hispanic residents, where the previous boundaries counted about 47% Hispanic when approved. The representation for that demographic conversely dropped for District 1 (formerly 43.5%) and increased for District 3 (formerly 36.4%), now 37.6 and 39.7% Hispanic, respectively.

When it comes to Native American representation, the new districts don’t change population distribution much, with District 1 at around 4% and District 3 with nearly 17%. Retaining that balance was the consensus of an eight-month project wherein the All Indian Pueblo Council crafted a map with the agreement of 21 sovereign tribal authorities, explains Casey Duoma, a member of Laguna Pueblo who served on the council’s subcommittee.

“There is huge appreciation for the maps that consider and incorporate input from the tribal nations,” he tells SFR, noting a future goal is that the participation and consensus of tribes be baked into the law, and maybe even the constitution. “I hope that in 10 more years that becomes a more solidified practice.”

While the tribes had to fiercely argue in favor of Senate maps from their agreements that were part of the CRC recommendations, their desires were honored from the start the congressional maps, Duoma says.

The Senate debated three iterations of congressional districts, including one that would have poked a finger of District 2 far enough north to separate Santa Fe and Eldorado. Legislators said the approved version was 90% similar to CRC “Map H,” but when Fair Districts asked for an explanation of each proposed deviation, leaders refused to provide one.

While the map that was approved kept Pecos in the northernmost District 3 at the end of the process, the threat got Ralph Vigil’s attention. The chairman of the New Mexico Acequia Commission still worries that the final redrawn district “waters down the voice of Northern New Mexico.”

Part of his concern is grounded in the concentration of wealth, where he says oil and gas interests along the new southeast border of the district can outspend traditional communal land users in the north.

“It does make it more difficult for whoever is going to be in office because now they have such a wide range of issues that are not simply associated,” he tells SFR in an interview. “So then in Congress, which is already polarized and nothing is getting done recently, what can we look forward to in the future?”

Plan backers from the Democratic Party, which controls both chambers of the Legislature, say it accomplished goals of making each of the three districts a better reflection of all of New Mexico rather than the perception of rural districts or urban ones, northern versus southern. Yet leaders in the southern strongholds for the state Republican Party said the division was aimed at deepening the Democratic majority.

Districts 1 and 3 are represented by Democrats in Congress today, with the District 2 seat held by Republican Yvette Harrell, who narrowly ousted Democratic incumbent Xochitl Torres-Small in the last election. After the governor approved the newly redrawn districts, sitting District 3 Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez issued a fundraising call noting “our 3rd district has gone from solidly Democratic to highly competitive. The political website FiveThirtyEight notes that it ‘endang[ers] [my] reelection prospects.’”

As of press time, the GOP had not followed through on vague threats to take the matter to court, but at least one resident in Sandoval County has filed a complaint with the US Department of Justice in recent days.

The specter of litigation hangs over the new maps—and there’s precedent in New Mexico.

During the last redistricting fight in 2012, then-Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, vetoed a series of maps approved by the Democrat-controlled Legislature. The Democrats’ plan had followed the 2010 census, and they sued Martinez to flip her veto. In the end, a state District Court judge drew the maps, largely giving the majority party in the Legislature what it wanted.

Many have expected a lawsuit over the maps lawmakers approved in December, possibly led by state Sen. Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque, who resigned from the Democratic Party during the redistricting session over what he called the “virus” of partisanship in state government.

Candelaria is now registered as “declined to state”—the New Mexico political equivalent of an independent—and has said he does not plan to seek a fourth, four-year term in 2024.

The senator tells SFR his private law firm is eyeing litigation related to maps laying out the new districts—but not the congressional maps. Instead, Candelaria says he’ll focus any potential litigation on maps drawn for the Bernalillo County Commission.

He had plenty of harsh words for the process lawmakers used to draw all the maps, though he adds that he isn’t aware of any other litigation underway.

“The reason folks are having to look at these options is because of the process the [state] Senate used,” Candelaria says, citing lawmakers’ decision to discard maps presented by the CRC and instead draw their own new boundaries. “We were lulled into this false sense of confidence through the veneer of reform and the charade of an independent advisory group. Instead, we got the will of the same partisan animals who have controlled redistricting, always.”

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe tells SFR one Senate committee had trouble with Zoom’s comment function, but resolved it before the hearing ended. The Legislature acted well within what the law allows, Wirth adds.

“The law that created the redistricting committee…treats the report as a recommendation to the Legislature, but under the current setup, there is nothing in the law that says the Legislature needs to explain why it did something different from what the commission recommended,” he says.

Wirth says he would “think about” supporting a constitutional amendment to give the commission more independence, but he has concerns about the potential consequences of “us giving up our authority” absent a federal law on the matter.

He said the CRC recommendations were “incredibly helpful” and he characterized the approved congressional maps as significant progress, noting their mix of urban and rural residents and demography.

“Having three congressional seats that can reflect New Mexico’s values, which is what we have now, is a really good thing,” Wirth says.

The conflict over redistricting extends beyond age-old political political gerrymandering, but reflects a new emphasis on representative democracy at the demographic level. It’s not just about suits arguing in the Roundhouse, but about the potential for New Mexico’s elected officials to actually look, think and be like the voters they ostensibly represent.

The state has one of the nation’s highest percentages of Hispanic/Latino residents (nearly 48%) yet it carries a long history of institutional, legal and cultural hurdles in its political processes. National redistricting experts say voting districts should neither “pack” nor “crack” demographic groups as part of basic fairness principles, but ensuring fair and representative distribution gets tricky in a hurry.

Most state laws mirror New Mexico’s in keeping redistricting as part of the partisan process: according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 10 states have non-legislative commissions with primary responsibility for redistricting and five, including New Mexico, have advisory commissions to assist the Legislature.

Some states explicitly prohibit “incumbency protection,” such as the reason lawmakers in the recent New Mexico deal cited for attempting to shuffle some borders to keep two sitting senators from having to run against each other in a future election.

For Burke, the consequence of the status quo is clear:

“We are looking at decade after decade of politicians choosing their voters, which is essentially what we have by allowing the Legislature to do our redistricting,” she says. “Until we take that duty out of the hands of the Legislature and put that duty into someone else’s hands, we have the same scenario of politicians choosing their voters.”

Figueroa might have an ally in Candelaria and others and even a shot at her resolution passing both houses in one of the next two sessions. Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, which controls debate around proposed constitutional amendments, says he’s excited about another try for an independent redistricting constitutional amendment though an early draft of Figueroa’s plan isn’t there yet. Ivey-Soto led an effort for the action in 2018, but it never got a hearing in the House.

“It has been building momentum,” Figueroa says, “We took that huge step in 2021 and that was a fundamental shift and that it got through is a signal that we are getting to a time when a constitutional amendment might pass, and we have what we learned fresh in mind from the Citizen Redistricting Committee process…Now that we have done it once as statute, a constitutional amendment is not quite as scary, both to the public and to legislators.”

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