March 12, 2021

Some look to improve independent redistricting proposal

Wikicommons

New Mexico State Senate.

With just over a week to go before this year’s legislative session ends, the prospect of lawmakers coming through with an independent redistricting plan is looking more likely.

But some involved in the process still have concerns about Senate Bill 15, which the Senate unanimously approved Wednesday.

The measure would create a seven-member citizens’ committee to gather public input and then come up with three possible redistricting plans for the Legislature to consider by year’s end. 

The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to discuss the bill Friday. Assuming the committee approves the measure, it would go to the House floor for a final vote before heading to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk for a signature. 

Some redistricting advocates want the legislation to include language that ensures tribal and pueblo governments are included in the process. 

“The redistricting activities have to take into consideration local governments and their role on the Navajo Nation,” said Leonard Gorman, executive director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission.

Among his concerns: The bill as written says redistricting should not divide existing precinct boundaries. But on the Navajo Nation, he said, those precinct lines have nothing to do with U.S. Census Bureau population counts, which are used for redistricting efforts across the country. As a result, that provision, if followed, could dilute Navajo voting power, he said.

He said he would like to see the committee start a redistricting plan from scratch, not just in the Navajo Nation, but statewide, to ensure equitable voting power. 

Gorman said he wants to see more specifics in the bill about what methodology the committee will use in drawing up district boundaries. 

Former Court of Appeals Judge Roderick Kennedy, who took part in a redistricting task force late last year, agreed. He said another issue is a lack of language in the bill defining what happens once the Legislature starts reviewing those three plans.

As written, the bill does not require the Legislature to justify its reasons for choosing a final plan. It simply says the Legislature will deal with the issue as it does with any other recommendation it gets from interim legislative committees.

“The Legislature is not subject to the open meetings criteria in the way they conduct business,” Kennedy said.

So, the Legislature “can withdraw into private caucus rooms and cut whatever deals it wants” to protect its own interests, he said. 

Melanie Majors, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, echoed some of Kennedy’s thoughts, saying it’s vital the Legislature make every aspect of the process “open, transparent.

“It must allow the public to provide feedback to any proposed redistricting plan being considered by the Legislature before it takes a vote on it.”

Redistricting is required in every state once a decade, following the national census and using its data. But 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 later this year to adopt a redistricting plan.

Redistricting is meant to ensure the number of people in each voting district remains fairly equal as populations shift. It can influence election results by determining which party has an advantage in individual districts.

Frustration over an initial lack of progress on several redistricting bills this session boiled over Thursday when Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, made an effort to move a rival redistricting bill, House Bill 211, to the House floor for an immediate vote.

The maneuver, known as “blasting,” effectively speeds up a hearing on a bill by having it bypass planned committee hearings. Dow’s bill, co-sponsored by 34 other legislators of both political parties, is also scheduled to be heard Friday in the House Judiciary Committee.

Dow expressed concerns the bill would not survive the hearing for a number of reasons, particularly since House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, had signed on to co-sponsor SB 15 with Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque. 

Earlier Thursday, during a virtual news conference, Egolf said he thought SB 15 was the bill that would move forward.

Dow’s efforts failed when the House voted 43-25 to oppose the move after about 45 minutes of debate.