Efforts to ensure New Mexico has an independent redistricting commission plan — once seen as an uphill climb at best — are now moving with momentum.
The Senate voted 39-0 to approve a compromise bill that, if enacted into law, would play a major role in setting boundaries for Congress, the state Senate and House of Representatives, and the Public Education Commission later this year.
The substitute bill for Senate Bills 15 and 99 would create a seven-member panel to come up with a redistricting plan for the Legislature to approve by the end of the year.
Provisions of the bill include the ability for legislative leaders from both parties in the Senate and House to choose four members. The New Mexico Ethics Commission will choose the other three members, one of whom would be a retired justice of the state Supreme Court or a retired judge of the state Court of Appeals.
“This citizens’ redistricting committee will go throughout the state and do a series of [public] hearings,” said Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque and co-sponsor of the legislation.
After taking public input, that group then will come up with three plans for redistricting and present them to the Legislature to consider during a special session slated for later this year.
Ivey-Soto added an amendment Tuesday that requires the commission to be appointed and ready to go to work by June 1. The legislation prohibits one political party from holding a majority on the commission.
There was little debate or discussion on the legislation, which started out as one of the slowest-moving bills of this year’s session. It now goes to at least one committee in the House.
Of the trio of redistricting bills introduced this year, two have failed to gain much traction. One — House Bill 211, cosponsored by a coalition of Democrats and Republicans — is still awaiting a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee, with just 11 days left to go in the session.
One Senate bill raised issues of violating the state Constitution in that it would have forced the Legislature to take one of the plans it submitted, even if the Legislature didn’t want to.
Some elements of that plan were incorporated into the substitute bill.
House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, has said he would not support an independent redistricting commission, suggesting efforts to move any such bills through the House would face a challenge. Egolf has since signed on to Ivey-Soto’s bill.
Redistricting is meant to ensure the number of people in each voting district remains fairly equal as populations shift. It can — and often does — influence election results by determining which party has an advantage in individual districts. It is required in every state once a decade, following the national census and using its data.
The COVID-19 pandemic is causing delays in the release of 2020 census numbers, so states won’t get that information to start planning for redistricting until at least late September.
The Legislature plans to convene a special session in November or December to select a final plan for new district maps.
Kathleen Burke, project coordinator for Fair Districts New Mexico, which has been advocating for an independent redistricting commission, wrote in an email that while her group is “pleased” with the Senate’s actions, more could be done to improve the bill.
She said she and other advocates will be pushing for a number of amendments as the legislation makes its way through the House, including measures to connect with tribal leaders about “past experiences with district lines dividing tribal lands.”
Fair Districts New Mexico also wants the Legislature to hold discussions on creating new maps in open meetings and provide written evaluations of how those final maps adhere to redistricting criteria.
It’s also important, she wrote, to “prohibit consideration of incumbency and partisan data” in any such plans.