As the deadline for forming an independent redistricting committee gets closer, those involved with the appointment process say interest in serving on the committee is strong.
The stakes are high, as redistricting has the potential to determine which party holds an advantage in individual legislative or congressional districts. New Mexico’s redistricting committee will come up with three maps for each of the following redistricting plans: Congress, state legislative seats and the Public Education Commission.
The Legislature plans to convene a special session late in the year to adopt a final map.
The State Ethics Commission, which chooses three of the seven members for the redistricting committee, has received 35 applicants to date, said commission Executive Director Jeremy Farris.
The four legislative leaders — two from each major political party — charged with picking one committee member each said they’ve received about 20 applications in all.
Sen. Mimi Stewart, president pro tem of the Senate and one of those four lawmakers, said Tuesday she has had at least six people send applications to her.
“I have more than enough to choose from, she said. “There’s plenty of people willing to do this work, and I’m close to making a decision.”
Sen. Greg Baca, R-Belen and minority leader of the Senate, House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe and Rep. Jim Townsend, R-Artesia and minority leader for the House, are the other three legislators tasked by law with selecting one member from their own political party to serve on the commission.
Baca said he had three applicants; Townsend said he had at least eight; Egolf said he had received four inquiries of interest.
Those lawmakers also have the ability to appoint someone who has not applied, and several said they have reached out to people who could be good candidates.
Senate Bill 304, the legislation creating the redistricting committee, includes specific criteria to follow when choosing a committee member.
It prohibits the appointment of anyone who serves — or has served in the past two years — in public office. Lobbyists are not eligible. Other provisions are in place prohibiting family members of state officials and governmental employees from serving on the committee.
“It’s been a challenge to find someone with experience in the area but who is not directly involved in it right now,” Baca said Tuesday.
The ethics commission is encouraging interested residents to apply via its website before May 21. Two of the members it can choose may not be affiliated with one of the two major political parties, and one — the committee chairperson — must be a retired justice of the state Supreme Court or a retired New Mexico Court of Appeals judge.
Farris said Tuesday so far just one former judge or justice has applied to the ethics commission.
He said the commission has received some applications from people who said they are members of the Democratic or Republican party, and he has passed those along to the appropriate appointing legislators for their consideration.
Farris and the four lawmakers declined to say who has applied. He added the ethics commission plans to come up with a list of finalists — probably no more than eight — to be interviewed at a June 4 meeting. That commission will make its final choice at that time, he said.
All four lawmakers said they expect to make a decision no later than mid-June.
The deadline for setting up the commission, charged with drafting redistricting maps for the Legislature to consider later this year, is July 1.
Nationwide, open-government advocates warn about the potential for gerrymandering, in which lawmakers involved in the redistricting process attempt to draw lines that favor their party.
Such concerns led to the passage of the bill that created the redistricting committee.
Kathleen Burke, project director of Fair Districts for New Mexico, an Albuquerque advocacy group pushing for a fair redistricting plan, wrote in an email Tuesday her group believes the state’s process will be “the most transparent, least gerrymandered redistricting and reapportionment on record for New Mexico.”
New Mexico has had a long and turbulent history with redistricting since at least the 1960s, when decades of lawsuits challenging redistricting plans began.
Voting districts in New Mexico were last drawn in 2012 by a state District Court after then-Gov. Susana Martinez a Republican, vetoed a plan drafted by the Democrat-controlled Legislature following the 2010 census.
Meanwhile, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee wrote in a fundraising flier it recently released that New Mexico is one of 15 “battleground” states to watch for its redistricting efforts.
A spokeswoman for that organization wrote in an email the group does not believe there are concerns about New Mexico’s process.
“We look forward to seeing what the New Mexico redistricting commission presents and will continue to work with our partners in state to ensure the process is transparent and results in fair maps that represent all voters,” wrote spokeswoman Fabiola Rodriguez.
The national committee is looking to raise $60,000 by the end of the month to help “engage the American public to force transparency in redistricting.”
Redistricting is designed to ensure the number of people in each voting district remains fairly equal. It is based on national census data, but because the coronavirus pandemic caused delays in the release of 2020 census numbers, states won’t have important information until late September.