June 13, 2023

Supreme Court’s racial gerrymandering decision unlikely to have much impact on NM

"Vote Here" signs in front of the Otero County Administration Building on New York Avenue in Alamogordo.

"Vote Here" signs in front of the Otero County Administration Building on New York Avenue in Alamogordo.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down racial gerrymandering will likely have a minimal impact on New Mexico, experts say.

New Mexico has had its share of lawsuits about alleged gerrymandering in its 2021 redistricting maps.

On June 8, the Supreme Court ruled that Alabama’s 2022 congressional redistricting plan violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 because it illegally diluted the Black vote in Alabama.

While the ruling will have little effect on New Mexico, New Mexico has had its problems with redistricting in the past, according to Dede Feldman with Common Cause New Mexico.

“The Supreme Court case was one in which racial gerrymandering engaged in by the Alabama legislature was finally struck down,” Feldman said. “(The Alabama legislature) had packed a lot of black voters into one district in order to dilute their opportunity to elect a larger number of representatives. This kind of ‘packing’ and ‘cracking’ or dividing up geographically contiguous minority neighborhoods weakens their opportunity to elect minority representatives.”

Up until the 2000 redistricting cycle, which comes around every decade following the Census, New Mexico was under federal supervision due to racial block voting in the northwestern part of the state, which affected Native American voters and the southeastern part of the state, which affected Hispanic voters, Feldman said.

Following the 2020 redistricting process, the Citizen Redistricting Committee released a report on the makeup of the committee as well as the committee’s methodology.

“This (redistricting) cycle, New Mexico, through its redistricting commission, made a great effort to outreach to the tribes and Hispanic groups in order to allow the creation of districts where minorities have a good opportunity (if not a majority) to elect a representative like them.  It’s the reverse of what Alabama was doing,” Feldman said.

New Mexico’s current legislative redistricting maps had high ratings from the Princeton University Gerrymandering Project.

The state senate map received an overall “A” grade and an “A” for partisan fairness; however, it got a “C”s for both competitiveness and geographic features. The state house map received an overall “B” grade with an “A” in partisan fairness, a “C” in competitiveness and an “F” in geographical features.

The “F” was due to the districts not being compact and having more county splits than is typical, which is the same assessment for the state senate map.

The partisan fairness grade is weighted heavier than the other two in the overall grade because it “is the most robust in detecting gerrymandering harms, so our final grade is heavily influenced by the partisan fairness grade with the other categories making grade adjustments,” according to the Project’s website. “Specifically, we start with partisan fairness grade as our base final report card grade. If geographic features is an ‘F’, we downgrade the final grade by one letter. We acknowledge that this is only one possible grading scheme that we have developed using the expertise at the Electoral Innovation Lab and have provided the individual grades and scores.”

The federal Voting Rights Act’s second clause states that “No voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any State or political subdivision to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” It was enacted as a means to enforce the 15th Amendment, which gave Black men the right to vote in 1870. Women gained the right to vote in 1920.

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts—who was appointed to the Court in 2003 under President George W. Bush—issued the ruling which was approved on a 5-to-4 margin.

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School released an analysis of the ruling on June 9 entitled “A Rare Win for Voting Rights at the Supreme Court” which details what the ruling means for voters and for the Voting Rights Act. Redistricting expert Michael Li wrote the analysis.

“The decision is an important, if qualified, win for voting rights advocates. If the high court had done what Alabama and conservative groups had asked — and what the dissenting justices wanted — it would have radically rewritten or even eliminated one of the few remaining protections of the Voting Rights Act,” the analysis states. “At the heart of the case, Allen v. Milligan, was the question of whether the congressional map adopted by lawmakers illegally diluted Black political power when it divided communities in Alabama’s mostly rural and heavily impoverished Black Belt region among five different districts.”