Fair. Open. Transparent.
The terms monitors have used to describe New Mexico’s decennial redistricting process — a usually contentious effort that regularly has spurred lawsuits since the 1970s — are signs of a positive outlook so far for this year’s system of redrawing political district boundaries.
Advocates for a more open process of redistricting, held every 10 years based on new census data showing population shifts, successfully pushed the New Mexico Legislature to create a Citizens Redistricting Committee to carry out the task of creating proposed new maps for state legislative seats and congressional districts — with ample input from the public. Leaders of those groups said they are pleased with the committee’s efforts midway through the process.
“I would call them fair, open and transparent,” said Mario Jimenez III, campaign director for Common Cause New Mexico. “There’s definitely more public participation in this than in the past.”
Dick Mason, who is serving as redistricting director for the League of Women Voters of New Mexico, agreed. Media attention on the issue and a high level of public participation have shined a brighter spotlight on the process than in the past, he said, adding he has seen little discord at meetings or discontent among the public.
“It definitely has been open,” he said. “I think it has been fair.”
About 1,200 members of the public have shown up at committee meetings to offer suggestions, and groups and individuals have submitted 72 proposed district maps for the state House, Senate and Public Education Commission, which oversees state-chartered schools, as well as New Mexico’s three congressional seats. More than another 75 people have submitted online comments with ideas for other maps as well.
The seven-member committee is working against a tight deadline to submit an array of redistricting maps for state lawmakers to consider. The Legislature must approve a plan by the year’s end.
The goal of the process is to ensure each voting district has a nearly equal number of residents, that most cities and tribes remain in the same district and that minority groups have a voice.
The process can be controversial — not just in New Mexico but across the nation — because a party in power often attempts to redraw lines in a way that increases its hold or marginalizes certain groups by reducing their numbers in a district.
This year, advocates in New Mexico fought to make sure the public, not just powerful lawmakers in a heavily Democratic state Legislature, have a role in the process.
“Fair redistricting puts power into the hands of the people, where it belongs,” said Kathleen Burke, executive director of Fair Districts New Mexico, a coalition of more than 30 organizations in the state.
“While it may just seem on the surface to just have to do with political boundaries, the long-term effects of redistricting are about empowering the people to get what the people want,” she added.
This time around, advocates and members of the Citizens Redistricting Committee also hope to avoid costly litigation over the process, which has occurred in the past several decades.
Voting districts in New Mexico were last drawn in 2012 by a state District Court after then-Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, vetoed a redistricting plan drafted by a Legislature with a majority of Democrats following the 2010 census. The court costs associated with the legal wrangling ranged between $6 million and $7 million, according to media reports at the time.
However, despite a more open system of redistricting this year, the Legislature still could approve maps recommended by the committee — or create its own version — that don’t meet with everyone’s approval, prompting a court intervention.
“There’s always that possibility,” said Edward Chávez, a former New Mexico Supreme Court justice who chairs the Citizens Redistricting Committee. “We can’t control that. We will do our best to do things within the bounds of the law, and hopefully we can avoid it.”
In the meantime, there are all those maps to consider, including three recently proposed by the All Pueblo Council of Governors’ Ad Hoc Redistricting Committee.
Chávez, who said other members of the committee asked him to be its spokesman, said he has spent a lot of time, including on weekends, studying each map proposal. He wasn’t certain whether other members were putting as much time into the effort as he was.
There’s been no behind-the-scenes discussion of the maps among members, he added. “When we discuss maps, we do it publicly.”
One of the group’s proposals recommends big changes in New Mexico’s three congressional districts.
Members of the All Pueblo Council of Governors’ Ad Hoc Redistricting Committee said they believe Chávez’s group has worked to engage the state’s tribal leaders and communities to ensure they retain a voice in legislative districts with high populations of Native American people.
The pueblo committee also hopes to increase Native influence in the congressional districts.
“The types of maps the tribes have developed reflect the rights of the Voting Rights Act, and the Citizens Review Committee is using that as a basis for how they approach the maps,” said Casey Douma of Laguna Pueblo, one of the co-chairs of the Ad Hoc Redistricting Committee. “We feely strongly that the maps submitted by the pueblos and Apache nations will be considered in that light.”
Under the plan created by the Ad Hoc Redistricting Committee for New Mexico’s three seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, the northernmost 3rd Congressional District, which includes Santa Fe, would extend down into what is now the 2nd Congressional District in Southern New Mexico to incorporate portions of the Mescalero Apache Tribe.
The plan also would expand the Albuquerque-centric 1st Congressional District to the southwest.
It wasn’t the only proposed congressional map that would dramatically change the U.S. House districts.
One map submitted by a resident proposed splitting the state in half from top to bottom, right down the center.
Another map, one the Citizens Redistricting Committee moved forward for public consideration earlier this month, would lump Santa Fe and Albuquerque into the same congressional district.
Major changes are unlikely, but a town, community or part of a county might find itself edged into an adjoining district, Chávez said.
And at least one legislative district best described as rambling — Senate District 39, which runs from Santa Fe County to Lincoln County — is likely to change considerably, he said. Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos, now represents that district.
“Some other senator is going to represent an area of Lincoln County she was responsible for,” Chávez said.
His committee already has chosen a number of maps for consideration, he added, but there is still time for new proposals.
Jimenez, with Common Cause, said he thinks the map options are being “narrowed down” as an Oct. 15 deadline nears for submissions. The committee will turn it its final proposals to state lawmakers by Oct. 30.
While he has confidence in the Citizens Redistricting Committee, Jimenez said it could be a brand-new ballgame when lawmakers begin considering the recommended maps in a special session expected to be held in early December. The Legislature has the power to alter any maps the committee pitches.
“That is one of the biggest flaws in the legislation that was passed creating the redistricting act,” he said. “There was not a clause written into the law holding the Legislature’s feet to the fire upon receiving the recommendations from the CRC.”
Burke said lawmakers could find a reason to move into an executive session, behind closed doors, to discuss reworking the proposed maps.
But, she said, because of the way the committee was set up and is operating, she thinks “there are going to be more people watching than ever before.”