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NM lawmakers should set new redistricting criteria

At least since 2018, the platform of the Democratic Party of New Mexico has included the intention to end gerrymandering, the practice of creating or “drawing” voting districts (boundaries of electoral constituencies) in a way to favor a political party or incumbent politician(s).

Item 15 of the section of the 2020 platform entitled “Ethics, Elections, and Politics” states, “We will … end gerrymandering by creating and giving authority to an independent non-partisan redistricting commission, separate from the legislative process, that will prevent the drawing of political boundaries favoring one party over another or favoring incumbents.” The Republican Party of New Mexico’s issues statement on its website does not address gerrymandering.

For lovers of democracy, ending gerrymandering is a very important goal, for gerrymandering subverts the right to vote. For those unfamiliar with the process, the drawing of voting districts or “redistricting” occurs every 10 years after the national census. In theory, it is done in order to keep the districts reflective of the population within them. In practice, in the majority of states in which the state legislature does it, the party in power often draws them to its political advantage, in order to retain and even increase its political control. Put in the simplest of terms, what that does is allow elected officials to choose who their voters are in their districts, instead of the voters choosing their elected officials. No single party is guilty of this manner of “rigging the system;”both Democratic- and Republican-dominated state legislatures engage in it.

Since 2016, there have been six pieces of New Mexico legislation proposing either to amend the state Constitution in order to vest the authority and task of redistricting in an independent commission, or to study how to best reform the redistricting process. The Democratic Party has had control of both houses of the Legislature, except in 2015-16, when the Republicans took control of the House. Sadly, each piece of legislation aimed at ending or grappling with the undemocratic practice of gerrymandering has failed, whether introduced in the House or the Senate. The Legislature’s website designates it as “API,” which means “action postponed indefinitely.”

We must take politics out of the redistricting process. The Brennan Center for Justice, the National Conference of State Legislatures, independent scholars and state agencies have proposed fair and purposeful criteria for drawing voting districts. The various suggestions include several or all of: 1) equal population; 2) racial fairness; 3) compactness; 4) geographical contiguity; 5) encourage competition; 6) preservation of communities of interest; 7) preservation of political subdivisions and prior districts; and 8) nonpartisan fairness. The 10 states that have created independent redistricting commissions have adopted redistricting criteria similar or identical to these.

In 2020, House Memorial 8 proposed that the Legislative Council establish a task force to study redistricting, and to suggest new rules and guidelines. Despite the death of HM 8 in the past session, it is my understanding that the Legislative Council is still considering establishing the task force.

Whether the Legislature does the job itself or leaves it to a task force, it should not involve a gargantuan effort to develop a good set of redistricting criteria. Since model criteria have already been developed and utilized in other states, New Mexico need not reinvent the wheel.

Due to the Legislature’s half-hearted at best past efforts, it is too late to amend the state Constitution to create and empower an independent redistricting commission in time to do the redistricting this cycle. But it is not too late to establish the criteria to be followed in the process.

It’s time for Democratic state legislators to walk the walk to match the party platform’s talk. Republican state legislators should also get behind this since they and their constituencies have been the primary victims of gerrymandering due to decades of mostly Democratic control in the state.

John House of Santa Fe is president of RepresentUs New Mexico.

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