The process of redistricting — conducted every 10 years after the U.S. census is taken — needs to be as fair and impartial as possible. That’s why it’s so distressing to learn House Speaker Brian Egolf is against creating an independent commission that will draw legislative and congressional districts, among others.
New maps will be created in 2021 in New Mexico and across the country as required by the Constitution. Too often, the process is unfair and overly political, designed to keep blocks of voters from having an equal say — or to build an impenetrable wall of political power.
The Legislature should approve the proposal to establish a nonpartisan commission to take on the task of drawing districts for state House, Senate, Public Education Commission and congressional seats.
We need it in New Mexico and across the country. That was our position in 2015, after the Supreme Court ruled that Arizona’s redistricting commission was constitutional. It remains our position today.
A less political redistricting process will ensure incumbents can’t draw lines to press their advantages and that the party in power doesn’t create districts to reduce their opponents’ strength. A fair process also reduces the likelihood of expensive lawsuits — challenges to redistricting plans cost millions — and means the courts don’t draw the plans.
Most of all, done right, redistricting gives each voter an equal say, keeps communities of interest together, protects minority views and improves public trust in the system.
House Bill 211, co-sponsored by Republican and Democratic lawmakers, would establish a seven-member redistricting commission, laying out requirements for choosing those members, initiating a series of public meetings and charging the panel with responsibility for coming up with redistricting options. There’s a Senate version as well, Senate Bill 199.
After districts are drawn, the commission would hand over plans to the Legislature — which must meet in special session later this year to conclude redistricting. With census numbers delayed, having plans ready before the session will save precious time. Once they see the blueprints, lawmakers must choose an option without amendment and send it to the governor for approval or essentially let the commission pick the plan it believes best satisfies the law.
Egolf is no fan of an independent commission. It’s clear he wants to use the current lopsided Democratic majority — and the Democratic governor — to create districts that favor not only his party but the cause of its progressive wing.
Last year, Egolf pledged to redraw the 2nd Congressional District to reduce the power of conservatives after an incumbent Democrat lost to a Republican, saying, “So this is the last election for New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District with a map that looks like it looks now. So next time it’ll be a different district and we’ll have to see what that means for Republican chances to hold it.”
He backed away from those comments, but recently went further in a speech to a progressive group, saying that an independent commission would put “all the progressive causes we care about” at tremendous peril. He believes legislators can draw fair boundaries, despite decades of evidence to the contrary.
As we have seen across the country, legislators often fail at that task, throwing fairness out the window. Redistricting needs to become less political now and in the future, and a commission that doesn’t owe its existence or effectiveness to Egolf or any lawmaker makes that more possible. This legislation is not about the moment, but about establishing a fair, impartial and lasting process for the future.
The bill to establish an independent commission has the support of half the House of Representatives. It has cleared one House committee but has two more to go — assigning legislation to three committees is generally a sign that leaders want to kill a bill. A companion Senate bill, 199, has had no hearing to date. It’s an absolute sign political leaders in the Legislature would rather engineer redistricting themselves, and for their own benefit, than actually work for the good of the voters of this state.
Sensible political reform — the kind New Mexico and the nation need — shouldn’t be allowed to wither without a hearing. Voters who call their legislators, including Egolf and Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, can force the issue. Demand the Legislature find a better way to redistrict the state. Otherwise, it’s politics as usual. And we can’t afford that anymore.