SANTA FE – Lawmakers only have to shift a relatively small number of New Mexicans to achieve a population balance for the state’s three congressional districts during the redistricting session that starts Tuesday, but little changes could mean political gains or losses for both political parties.
The southern New Mexico-based 2nd Congressional District is about 22,500 people short of the ideal district population of a little more than 686,000. The Albuquerque-based 1st Congressional District and the northern New Mexico 3rd Congressional District are just over ideal populations – nearly 7,000 people for the 1st District and more than 15,000 for the 3rd District.
Experts say most of the changes will likely focus on the 1st District, an island in the center of the state that includes most of Albuquerque, all of Torrance County, and small sections of both Sandoval and Valencia Counties.
That’s also the district where it is most plausible to change political fortunes.
Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling Inc., which is consulting with the Legislature on redistricting issues, said both parties have a chance to gain some ground in the 1st District.
Republicans could gain an advantage from cutting out the town of Bernalillo and the Placitas area in Sandoval County, which have traditionally been liberal. Those communities would likely be placed in the 3rd District if cut. Democrats would be aided by losing much – or all – of the more rural Torrance County, which has consistently voted more conservatively. Torrance County would likely be placed in the 2nd District in that scenario. Adding another Albuquerque suburb, Corrales, some of which now is in the 3rd District , could also gain some votes for Democrats.
Sanderoff said that the populations in those areas aren’t enough to permanently swing the 1st District toward one party, but that they could provide help in some election contests.
“It doesn’t happen every day that you have a close race, but when you do, those areas could make a difference,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, who has participated in two previous redistricting sessions, said he expects both parties to try to make the most out of a new congressional district map.
“I suspect there will certainly be plans and drawings done to concentrate the best they can on winning all three seats,” Ingle said.
Democrats now hold the 1st and 3rd District seats, leaving only the 2nd Congressional District currently to the GOP.
Many lawmakers say it will be difficult for the opposing political party to gain influence in the 2nd or 3rd district, however.
House Minority Leader Tom Taylor, R-Farmington, said there are enough concentrated Democrats in the northern 3rd District and Republicans in the southern 2nd District that even watering down their respective influences wouldn’t be enough to turn them into swing districts.
“There are large areas of Democrats and Republicans, but there’s not a lot of gray areas in between those,” Taylor said.
There are other considerations lawmakers are mulling as well, most having to do with where certain communities belong in the grand scheme.
One of the largest is Rio Rancho, which has been in the 3rd District since the district was created.
At least one plan devised by Research & Polling would turn the 1st District into an entirely urban area combining Albuquerque and neighboring Rio Rancho. That plan would leave little room for other communities within the district lines.
Most other early designs would split the two cities, leaving all of Rio Rancho intact in the 3rd District.
Sen. Linda Lopez, interim Redistricting Committee chairwoman, said lawmakers have heard from residents in many areas, often with conflicting views on what new lines should be drawn.
Rio Rancho, she said, has only asked that it remain whole, not split into two different districts. Torrance County, she said, prefers to remain in the 1st District because it has an “affinity with Bernalillo County.”
Pueblos are also an issue, with lawmakers trying to navigate pitfalls in federal law that make it illegal for ethnic populations to be too concentrated – where their influence becomes limited to one district – or too spread out – to eliminate influence altogether.
Sanderoff said that most comments from Pueblo residents have maintained that they prefer to be spread out and have a voting bloc in all three districts.
Lopez said her colleagues have been mum on which direction they plan to head with all their options.
“I don’t have a flavor; I don’t have an idea which way we’re leaning,” she said.
— This article appeared on page A7 of the Albuquerque Journal