Redrawing electoral boundaries is not unlike taking a Rorschach ink blot test.
There are a variety of shapes and sizes, all subject to different interpretations. And as a redistricting committee tasked with reconfiguring boundaries for Congress, the Legislature and the Public Education Commission began looking at various potential maps of New Mexico’s electoral topography for the next 10 years, it was clear there are plenty of options from which to choose.
So many, in fact, that the committee on Thursday voted to approve and more forward every proposed map for further public comment and input.
There will be more to come as well. A Native American working group charged with submitting ideas has yet to turn in its final recommendation.
“Us moving these maps forward now seems a little strange because we don’t have the full concepts [from Native Americans] in front of us,” said committee member Michael Sanchez of Belen, the former Senate majority leader. “It may be minor, but then again it may affect some of these districts.”
But the committee’s chairman, former New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Edward Chávez, stressed the proposed maps are far from final, and there is time to review and accept new maps or change some of the current proposals.
He said the public still has time to continue submitting map proposals for the redistricting plan, which is designed to use census data to make the many districts as equal as possible in size and population.
Still, a deadline looms: The committee has to approve maps for final consideration by Oct. 15.
The stakes are high, both in New Mexico and throughout the country: Redistricting can determine which party will hold long-term political power.
Based on the committee’s review of the various conceptual maps — seven for Congress, three for the state Senate, four for House seats and three for the Public Education Commission — some counties and residents could find themselves in different districts than they are now.
That’s where it gets interesting. Many maps offered a very different look of the state’s political landscape than those in place now. One in particular, called Concept D, combines parts of Santa Fe and Albuquerque in the 1st Congressional District. Currently, Santa Fe is the center of the 3rd District; Albuquerque dominates the 1st District.
On the other hand, one redistricting proposal to tighten up the sprawling state Senate District 39 — which runs from the heavily Democratic Santa Fe County to the Republican stronghold of Lincoln County — would compact that district into a region encompassing Eldorado, Pecos and Placitas.
Some counties and cities currently are split among different districts, so many of the Senate and House plans would attempt to unify some of those communities within a district.
Given the state has 42 senators and each Senate district should have about 50,000 people, it could take a lot of small rural counties being pulled together in one district to meet that goal, said Brian Sanderoff, an Albuquerque pollster whose company, Research & Polling Inc., put together the various maps based on public input.
“It takes that much mileage to find 50,000 people,” he said.
If one district needs bigger numbers, the citizens of a city or town in an adjoining district could find themselves moved over to the one that needs more people. One Public Education Commission redistricting proposal would move all the citizens from the town of Cuba from District 4 to District 5 for this reason.
Some involved in the redistricting process stressed every idea remains in a preliminary stage of approval.
“These are just concepts,” Sanderoff told the committee members. “We wanted to get different approaches out there for consideration based on what we heard.”
Though some members joined Sanchez in expressing concern about moving too quickly with approving plans or not including potential plans to come, Chávez assured them anything is still possible when it comes to finalizing the redistricting plans.
“A brilliant map could show up on Oct. 13 and we decide to adopt that one on Oct. 15,” he said.
The committee has been charged by the Legislature to come up with three possible maps for congressional, legislative and Public Education Commission districts in a public process.
The Legislature plans to convene a special session in early December to adopt final maps.