February 12, 2019

Looming redistricting task prompts legislation

The State House of Representatives map adopted ahead of 2012 elections.

Everybody around the state Capitol seems to have a favorite example.

There’s the state House district in Northern New Mexico that is split in two by a mountain range and wilderness. You couldn’t drive across it if you tried.

Then there’s the state Senate district that stretches some 180 miles from Santa Fe to Ruidoso.

When it comes to political districts that have been precisely if nonsensically contorted, the New Mexico Legislature has got some real doozies.

And some lawmakers already have their eyes on the next round of redistricting, when they will carve up the state’s political map yet again. Or, more likely, the courts will.

“It’s so political,” said state Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque. “… Some people are already saying, ‘I want this precinct.’ “

O’Neill has backed legislation in the past that would take the job of redistricting New Mexico’s political boundaries every 10 years away from lawmakers and put it into the hands of an independent commission.

And once again, certain lawmakers are proposing to roll back the Legislature’s power over the redistricting process in hopes of reining in the politics that go along with it.

A Republican state senator and a Democratic colleague are sponsoring a bill that would task legislative staff with drawing political boundaries. Lawmakers could vote up or down on a few drafts prepared by aides. And if they could not agree, it would be up to the state Supreme Court to decide.

It may still be a long shot to ask lawmakers to give up some of the power they wield over drawing their own districts — and those of their colleagues. But proponents say it is key to boosting the public’s confidence in the electoral process and encouraging more competitive elections.

As another round of redistricting looms, they are hoping to head off another protracted fight over New Mexico’s political geography.

“It’s a good governance issue,” said state Sen. Bill Tallman, D-Albuquerque, who is co-sponsoring Senate Bill 416 with Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque.

The state redraws its political boundaries after each census. The existing process is effectively led by legislators, who gather public input and then hire consultants to draw up new boundaries.

There are some ground rules.

State political districts are supposed to have roughly equal populations. Guidelines adopted in 2011 also say, “the Legislature may seek to preserve the core of existing districts, and may consider the residence of incumbents.”

Critics say the process discourages competition.

And the current process has led to plenty of fighting.

In the last two rounds of redistricting, the process got bogged down in sparring between Republican governors and Democratic majorities in the Legislature, leading to costly fights in court.

Senate Bill 416 would put some other priorities in place. In particular, it would call for keeping districts as compact as possible to avoid having so many of the sprawling districts the state has now.

The law puts forward a model similar to one used in Iowa, giving much of the work to staff at the Legislative Council Service.

“It sets up a process that would prevent a lot of messing with the maps,” said Meredith Machen of the League of Women Voters of New Mexico. Her organization is backing the proposal.

While it would not be the independent commission that good government groups have campaigned for years to establish, supporters say this concept may have a better chance of winning support from lawmakers.

“It may not win popularity contests,” said Tallman. “Do we have a better chance? Yes.”