2021 was to be the year that New Mexico would finally break free from decades of gerrymandering. With the first-ever Citizens Redistricting Committee (CRC) expected to convene in July, it looks to be off to a somewhat inauspicious start. Media reports this month are highly critical of the composition of the CRC for being non-representative of the state, geographically, ethnically and politically. Six of the seven members live in Albuquerque, the seventh lives all the way down south in… Belen. Those appointed by the legislative caucus leaders are, unsurprisingly, politicians of one stripe or another. There is one woman. There are no Native members.
If you haven’t been living and breathing New Mexico redistricting for the last six months (and if not, what is wrong with you?), the Redistricting Act passed in the final hours of this year’s legislative session established the CRC to deliver three different map options at the end of October to the Legislature for Congressional districts, the state House and Senate and the state Public Education Commission, all of which will meet stringent population equality and fairness requirements and reflect statewide public input.
However, the CRC is only advisory; the Legislature can adopt the committee’s maps verbatim, modify them or discard them outright. This is not the independent redistricting as adopted by 14 states and mandated by the Congressional Democrats’ For the People Act currently being debated in the U.S. Senate.
To be fair, I don’t think a lot of Republicans applied to be appointed to the two slots available to them on the CRC. I was asked to and declined due to time constraints and concerns about the nature of the legislation. Even though the GOP has the most to lose with redistricting, as usual, with a Democrat-controlled Legislature making the final maps, this doesn’t seem to be a priority issue. I am not sure if many Democrats applied for their party’s two positions.
There were 69 applicants for the two non-party affiliated slots, to be appointed by the state Ethics Commission, which also appointed the chair. I was told many of the applicants couldn’t be considered since they were not actually independent voters but registered with a party. The Ethics Commission made two strong selections, the state demographer, and retired state Supreme Court Chief Justice Edward Chávez as chair of the CRC. The final CRC member selected was another man from Albuquerque who is a teacher. That’s fine, I guess, but seems like a missed opportunity to appoint someone from, I don’t know, ANY OTHER TOWN in the state, or a Native tribe, nation or pueblo. But two out of three is a way better batting average than that of the caucus leaders, so high five, Ethics Commission.
The work ahead is considerable, and the CRC has only four months to complete it. In addition to drawing maps for Congress, the state House and Senate and the Public Education Commission, the CRC will have to hold six public meetings around the state for input and reflect that input in its maps. Which, in my opinion, are likely to be thrown out entirely by the Legislature. I would not be shocked to learn that the Speaker is having his very own maps drawn as I write this.
(Interestingly, independent redistricting is part of the state Democratic Party platform, and voters are encouraged to support primary opponents of incumbents who do not support independent redistricting. It will be interesting to see if that remains part of the platform in 2022, and if it does, if the state party walks the walk on this one.)
But you know what? I do see a solution in the CRC and possible positive outcomes. It starts with the Ethics Commission’s two very good picks. In 2011, when redistricting landed in the courtroom, the Supreme Court wound up drawing the current maps. And Justice Chávez presided. He also co-chaired the Redistricting Task Force last fall and authored the original legislation that became the Redistricting Act. Armed with Justice Chávez and the state demographer, I am confident the maps created by the CRC will be solid.
Given the number of lawyers on the CRC (including Chávez, there are four), one can see that the maps they create could easily become pre-arbitrated options to be presented when either the state Republican Party, a local municipality, or a tribal organization decides to sue should the maps passed by the Legislature differ significantly from the CRC’s. And, yes, I said “when” not “if.” I think lawsuits are inevitable if the Legislature refuses to avail itself of the good work of the CRC.
There’s another opportunity to be hopeful, and that rests with us, the citizens of New Mexico. We, with the media who are already giving this topic a great deal of attention, can make our expectation and our demand clear: our government is selected by citizens, and it starts with districts that reflect fair and equitable representation of our population. Write and call your representative and senator. Attend the public meeting in your area. Write a letter to the editor of your newspaper. Public pressure brought independent redistricting this far; let’s not wait another decade before “one person, one vote” finally comes to pass in New Mexico.