Every decade state legislatures are required to redraw both legislative and congressional districts. This is necessary after the census is complete in order to adjust these districts for population growth and ensure equal representation. This process is where the word “gerrymander” was first coined – a term that describes redrawing districts in such a weird and misshapen fashion for the sole purpose of giving one political party advantage over the other.
New Mexico, like most states, has never been immune to gerrymandering. In fact, New Mexico’s legislative districts are so distorted that Republicans won 48% of the vote in last year’s election, while holding only a little over 30% of House and Senate seats in the Legislature. Such results are predictable because Democrats were in control the last time these legislative districts were created. As we approach the time when our legislative districts must be redrawn again, Democrats are again in complete control of both houses of the Legislature and the Governor’s Office.
The potential for political manipulation made the passage of Senate Bill 304 so important. This bipartisan bill creates for the first time a nonpartisan, citizen commission that will work to suggest fair legislative and congressional districts for the next 10 years. Equally important, this new commission will chart a new redistricting path by taking power away from politicians and giving it to the communities we are elected to represent.
The only downside to SB 304 is the Legislature can ignore the redrawn districts the commission will ultimately recommend. This is because New Mexico’s Constitution requires that only the Legislature can approve new legislative districts, so while the commission can propose fairly redrawn districts, the Legislature can alter them in order to benefit one political party or candidate.
Despite the changes made to the bill, I am convinced the passage of SB 304 is still an important step forward in creating an independent redistricting process that allows the people to be engaged in how new legislative districts are drawn. If signed by the governor, throughout the summer and fall, the new commission will be meeting across the state with different communities and groups to begin formulating districts based on the requirements of the Voting Rights Act and without political influence. Once these new districts are delivered to the Legislature, it will be up to all New Mexicans to ensure politicians do not try to change them to benefit themselves or their party.
After an arduous negotiation process, our state Legislature has finally crafted a compromise, bipartisan bill to establish an independent redistricting committee to draw the new legislation districts. Senate Bill 304 is the work of both chambers and political parties – it represents our coming together to get a redistricting process that works for the people.
This bill puts fairness into the process of redrawing the legislative map and is vital to ensure New Mexicans are fairly represented in Washington and in Santa Fe. The governor must deliver on her duty to represent all New Mexicans and to sign this collaborative legislation.