New Mexico legislature advancing bipartisan redistricting reform

A bipartisan plan to reform the way New Mexico draws its political boundaries is advancing through the state legislature, just months before the decennial redistricting process begins in earnest.

The measure, backed by almost half the members of the state House of Representatives, would create an independent commission to draw district lines. Four members of the commission would be appointed by the Republican and Democratic leaders of the state House and Senate, and another three — two independents or representatives of minor parties and one retired Court of Appeals judge — would be chosen by the state Ethics Commission.

The commissioners cannot be public officials, candidates for office or a registered lobbyist, and they cannot hold leadership positions in a political party at either the state or federal level. 

The bill passed the state House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee in a unanimous vote this week. It must still pass the House Judiciary Committee before reaching the floor for a vote.

The late reform push, coming just before the Census Bureau delivers final population figures to states that will guide the redistricting process, is the result of years of delicate negotiations between Democratic and Republican legislators. In some states, the battle over district lines has become a constant partisan flashpoint; New Mexico legislators hope they can take the partisanship out of the process.

“The way it happens now is the legislative body goes in a back room and fights it out,” said state Rep. Rebecca Dow (R), one of two Republicans sponsoring the bill. “It’s so behind closed doors, dark of the night kind of thing that we always have lawsuits.”

State House Speaker Brian Egolf (D), who wields substantial power over the redistricting process as it stands, has not indicated whether he supports the reform effort. A spokesperson for Egolf declined to comment.

The new legislation codifies what redistricting reformers usually support as cartographic best practices: Congressional and legislative districts should not be created to favor a particular party, and the commission would not be allowed to consider partisan data. 

The commission would be directed to create the most compact map possible, though the panel is directed to send the legislature three to five options from which to choose.

“It’s bipartisan because it represents a lot of compromise. I think both sides would have wanted something a little bit different,” Dow said in an interview. “This was our best effort. This is a compromise version.”

New Mexico would be the fifteenth state to empower a commission to craft at least some of its political boundaries. Its structure, with members appointed by legislative leaders, is most similar to Washington State’s independent commission, though Washington’s version does not have members appointed by an ethics panel.

Legislators said the reforms are influenced at least in part by the last round of redistricting, when the state spent millions defending its redistricting plans from legal challenges.

“By having a bipartisan independent commission with contracted expert coming up with several alternative plans, I believe the state legislature can responsibly agree on an option,” state Rep. Joy Garratt (D), one of the bill’s three Democratic sponsors, told The Hill. “It will take lots of collaboration and conversation, but I am confident it can happen successfully this time.”

The new commission is unlikely to result in changes to the state’s three-member congressional delegation. Seats held by Reps. Deb Haaland (D), based in Albuquerque, and Teresa Leger Fernandez (D), based in Santa Fe and encompassing much of Navajo Nation, each voted for President Biden by wide margins. The southern Second District, which elected Democrat Xochitl Torres-Small in 2018, gave former President Donald Trump 55 percent of the vote and elected Rep. Yvette Herrell (R) in 2020.

Democrats hold substantial advantages in the state legislature, too: They control 46 of 70 seats in the state House, and 26 of 40 seats in the state Senate.

Legislators and redistricting reform advocates say provisions of the bill requiring six public meetings and six hearings to be held around the state are meant to provide citizens with substantial input into the remapping process. In earlier years, some reformers thought legislators were holding only perfunctory hearings.

“They’ve essentially put on a road show and visited various towns and municipalities in New Mexico without really taking or accepting the feedback that was offered by members of the public,” said Mario Jiminez, campaigns director at Common Cause New Mexico who served on a state redistricting reform task force. “Our senators, our representatives and quite frankly the general public is extremely disheartened with the way the redistricting process has taken place over the last several decades here in New Mexico.”