Independent redistricting — important to reduce partisanship and the power of incumbency — is still possible for New Mexico.
The state Senate approved a plan to create a nonpartisan, independent redistricting commission earlier this week, and the legislation now moves to the House. Speaker Brian Egolf, previously against such commissions, has signed on as a sponsor. That means one committee hearing in the House, a vote and — we trust — approval before the session ends.
The legislation, Senate Bill 15, would create a Citizen Redistricting Committee to set boundaries for Congress, state legislative districts and the Public Education Commission — taking the influence of the Legislature from the process and, in the end, producing districts that are less political in nature.
The compromise would create a seven-member panel charged with creating new districts for legislative approval by the end of the year. Legislative leaders of both parties would choose four members, while members of the State Ethics Commission would appoint three — one would be either a retired Supreme Court justice or a retired Court of Appeals judge. No party would be allowed to have a majority.
Key to the panel’s work, once appointed, would be conducting hearings throughout the state to receive input about how the districts should be formed. After the public weighs in, the commission would create three plans. The Legislature would consider them at a special session later this year, retaining an ability to make changes as part of the compromise.
Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, who helped assemble the compromise, added an amendment requiring the commission to be appointed and ready to go by June 1. Credit also should go to Sens. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, a Democrat, and Mark Moores, a Republican, for helping produce the committee substitute. So much more is accomplished when legislators of both parties work together.
With U.S. census information likely to be late because of COVID-19, the work ahead is going to be difficult, with intense time pressures. The goal is to ensure the number of people in each voting district remains fairly equal despite shifts in population, while balancing the needs of communities of interest. It’s required once a decade.
Nonpartisan redistricting — as well as reducing the power of incumbents to protect themselves — matters in New Mexico and across the nation.
In some states, the drawing of districts so favors one party that its rule is entrenched. That’s bad for democracy. New Mexicans can’t control other states, but we can make sure new districts represent the interests of voters, not politicians.
Backers of the initiative, including Fair Districts New Mexico, still want some tweaking of the legislation as it is heard in the House.
That group, which has advocated for the independent redistricting commission, wants greater assurance on bringing in tribal leaders to discuss past experiences with districts dividing tribal lands. The group also wants more discussion on ensuring transparency during the legislative session when maps are reviewed and for legislative written evaluations of final maps to ensure accountability, something the citizen committee also will do. These amendments would improve the final legislation.
There’s more work ahead, in other words. Egolf should use his clout to move this legislation through quickly. Redistricting that puts voters first is good for New Mexico, and getting it across the finish line would speak well of our legislative process and democratic ideals.