It might seem easy to sit back and opine about the sad state of political affairs week after week. I sort of thought so. So, last fall, I got up off of my figurative couch and did something instead: I applied, and was accepted, to serve on the New Mexico Redistricting Task Force. Facilitated by the nonprofit New Mexico First and funded by the Thornburg Foundation, the 25-member Task Force spent 12 weeks building recommendations to bring a uniform process, fairness, equity and full compliance with the Voting Rights Act to New Mexico redistricting.
The primary recommendation of the Task Force was legislation to create an independent Redistricting Commission to redraw the district maps for U.S. Congress, the State Legislature and the State Public Education Commission. House Bill 211 was drafted by the Task Force co-chairs, retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Ed Chavez and retired Court of Appeals Chief Judge, and was unanimously passed by its first House committee this week.
If it passes the entire Legislature and becomes law, the Redistricting Commission will convene on April 1 and deliver three to five maps for Congress, the state House, the state Senate and the Public Education Commission for the Legislature to vote upon by Oct. 15. The Commission will have seven members: two Republicans, two Democrats, two members who are members of neither major party, and a chair who is retired Supreme Court justice. The Commission will be required to have no fewer than 12 public hearings for input before Oct. 15.
The Commission will also have specific requirements, guidelines and considerations for the drawing of districts that do not exist now, and have not been followed in any previous redistricting:
• equitable representation by population,
• full compliance with the Voting Rights Act,
• indigenous governances,
• communities of interest,
• integrity of governmental subdivisions,
• preserving the cores of existing districts,
• contiguity and compactness, and
• geographic barriers and features.
You’ll notice some items that aren’t in the above list: preserving incumbents’ districts and use of partisan voting data. Combined with “contiguity and compactness” this is a big start to eliminate gerrymandering. “Geographic barriers and features?” Yeah, you may have noticed there are mountain ranges in the middle of a few current districts, House Districts 38 and 22 in particular. Maybe you shouldn’t have to cross the Sandias or the Black Range to see your legislator or drive from Mora to Lincoln County. “Integrity of governmental subdivisions”: Why is Edgewood split in half between House Districts 22 and 50?
The other big one for me: any, I mean any, deviation from equitable population among districts must be justified in writing and none can exceed five percent. The five percent deviation has always been the maximum allowed; however, no justification has ever been required, meaning lawmakers could really rewrite maps for any reason they liked, and they did. The only really allowable justifications under the proposed law for a population deviation are the remaining considerations on the list. That, in my mind, takes care of the rest of gerrymandering concerns.
Why does this matter? For too long, lawmakers have drawn their own districts in this state. That in itself is an inherent conflict of interest. In the last two decades, as our political dialogue has declined into more and more hostile territory, redistricting has ended in our court system. 2001 and 2011 redistricting lawsuits cost the state over $6 million in court costs and attorneys’ fees.
So far, things look good for HB 211. Over half of the state House supports the bill, and there is similar bipartisan support in the Senate. Please, though, do get up off of your own figurative couch and email your legislator to let them know that fair and transparent redistricting is important to you. This is too important an issue to let slip by on a technicality or the time constraints of our part-time legislature. If you have questions, or need help contacting your legislator, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also learn more from the League of Women Voters at fairdistrictsnm.org.
Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and a former Navy officer. She lives amicably with her Democratic husband and Republican mother north of I-40 where they run two head of dog, and two of cat. She can be reached at email@example.com