Post-publication note: the legislation discussed here did not pass.
We’re going to have legislation this year to propose an independent redistricting commission for New Mexico. It’s an issue worth serious consideration.
As of this writing, no bill has been introduced, but we are assured by a group called New Mexico Open Primaries (nmopenprimaries.org) that a bill is in the works. This group has made redistricting its top legislative issue this year.
Redistricting has to happen every 10 years, following the U.S. Census, so that legislative, congressional, and other districts represent equal numbers of citizens. Since populations move, district boundaries must be moved to reflect these changes.
Redistricting is done by the legislature in most states, including New Mexico, but there is a growing movement in support of independent commissions, with the intention of having districts drawn that serve the public interest rather than the convenience of incumbent legislators or the party in power.
Legislators, especially those in the majority party, have an almost irresistable temptation to draw district boundaries that make their own reelection as easy as possible. And the majority party has an incentive to weaken the minority party by packing minority voters into a few districts, so that those voters will not inconvenience the majority party legislators in other districts. As it’s often said, under this system, legislators choose their voters rather than the voters choosing the legislators.
That is the formula for the contentious situation we have today. The public would be much better served with districts that are more competitive.
As the spouse of an incumbent senator, I had a ringside seat to the redistricting that followed the 1990 census. It was nasty. There were two special legislative sessions; the second was called because the courts threw out the first state Senate redistricting plan. (See the Legislative Council Services redistricting history, online at nmlegis.gov.)
Most of the decision-making took place in caucus meetings behind closed doors, including quiet dealmaking that the public never saw.
I observed firsthand a few of the unwritten rules of the redistricting process.
- Wherever feasible, carve up new legislative districts so that no two incumbent legislators end up in the same district and thus are forced to run against each other.
- If it is unavoidable because of population shifts to put two incumbents in the same district, make it two members of a minority party, so you are bumping off one minority member.
- Use geography to the advantage of the majority party. In rural districts, that involves such matters as roads and mountains. Make it easier for some candidates to get around the district than others.
I am still amused by the memory of a map of one Albuquerque district that was more or less square, except for a mysterious skinny finger reaching southward. It made no sense unless you knew that the very end of that finger was the home of a potential candidate that Democrats wanted to run against the incumbent Republican. That map was not adopted.
If we could really get an appointed redistricting committee that would be truly independent, and would redraw districts on the basis of such identified issues as geographical compactness and communities of interest, without regard to partisan bias, that would be a major step forward toward reducing extremism in our elections and restoring solution oriented public policy.
There are two major challenges in creating an independent redistricting commission. One is establishing a formula for selecting the commissioners that ensures they are really independent and unbiased or, this being New Mexico, only minimally biased.
The second challenge is getting the legislature to vote for such a system. Every incumbent member of the legislature was elected by being the winner in the current system. So why would they vote against it?
A change like this is not likely to be enacted on its first try through the legislature. Still, it’s worth the effort.
Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2017