The 2020 census may seem far away to most citizens, but partisans around the country are sharpening their pencils in preparation for the redistricting process that occurs every 10 years, based on a new census. In New Mexico, a special session will be held in 2021 and legislators will draw new legislative and congressional districts. What they come up with could give Democrats, Republicans or incumbents an edge for the next 10 years and determine funding priorities and state and federal law.
Common Cause believes that this process should be done by an independent, nonpartisan commission, as it is in six other states. We will be prioritizing a constitutional amendment to authorize such a system and establish more neutral, transparent criteria, including public hearings. Public perception of the current system is poor, with many citizens feeling that it allows legislators to pick their own voters, a conflict of interest that could be remedied by an independent body.
Asking legislators to give up one of their prized prerogatives is never easy but, more and more, the public is disillusioned by the partisan wrangling and the inevitable court cases that have characterized New Mexico’s process. Last January seven in 10 voters polled by Research and Polling for Common Cause New Mexico said they wanted an independent commission to draw the lines, rather than legislators.
District lines should reflect communities of interest and assure each person an equal opportunity to elect someone to represent him or her. Too often these lines create “safe” districts for incumbents or one party or the other. The winners are determined in the primaries, depriving those in the other party of a real chance to weigh in. This is especially true in New Mexico since we have a “closed” primary system where Republicans can only vote in Republican primaries and Democrats can only vote in their primary. The result is few competitive districts—and more of a partisan divide, as candidates appeal only to those in their own party. Swing districts are rare, and compromise becomes difficult.
A nonpartisan districting process is also the aim of another resolution we will be supporting during the short 2018 legislative session. This “Fix it America” resolution calls on the Congress to amend the federal constitution to:
· Require that legislative districts or plans not intentionally or unduly favor or disfavor any political party; and
· Mandate congress and state legislatures to regulate the role of money in elections and governance to ensure transparency, prevent corruption, and protect against the buying of access to or influence over representatives. No such regulation shall be deemed in violation of freedom of speech rights in the U.S. Constitution.
Common Cause will try again to make it easier—rather than harder—to vote with another constitutional amendment to allow for automatic voter registration using a secure, electronic database to identify and register all eligible citizens when they renew their driver’s license or change their address. In 2017, this amendment passed the House and one Senate committee. It’s time to push for it again.
We now have the technological means to enfranchise more citizens and give them the opportunity to participate in democracy, and there are no excuses left for leaving stumbling blocks in the way. Currently, a big stumbling block is the state requirement that voters register 28 days in advance of an election—a deadline that even scrupulous voters can miss. Automatic registration is a doable system that many states are adopting.
Reflecting the requirements of this year’s short (30-day) session, Common Cause is focusing on constitutional amendments, which are automatically germane, or eligible for consideration. We would be delighted with a message from the Governor on other outstanding issues like revisions to the state’s “Pay-to-Play” laws, or modernization of our public financing laws—but we know that time is limited.
And—in the name of good government and democracy—we will be back next year, and every year.
Viki Harrison is executive director of Common Cause New Mexico. Common Cause is a nonpartisan grassroots organization dedicated to upholding the core values of American democracy. We work to create open, honest, and accountable government that serves the public interest; promotes equal rights, opportunity, and representation for all; and empowers all people to make their voices heard as equals in the political process. The views in this column are the author’s alone and do not reflect the view or opinions of New Mexico In Depth.