Debate over independent redistricting commission moves to Senate this year

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Every ten years, the United States counts its people, tabulating where they live and who they live with, plus a range of factors about them, like their sex, race and ethnicity, age, income, and more. 

That census in turn affects people in significant ways, such as the once-a-decade process where local and state governments redraw political district boundaries based on how their population has changed. The goal is to ensure elected officials represent roughly the same amount of people. 

A Senate concept map, one of several the 2021 New Mexico Citizens Redistricting Committee voted to forward to lawmakers for consideration during the official redistricting process.

This map-making process is called redistricting, and in New Mexico and most other states, at the state level it’s lawmakers who draw their own political district maps. 

But a coalition of advocates and civic groups, and some lawmakers, want voters to decide this November if an independent commission would do a better job than state lawmakers of drawing political districts in the future. 

A joint resolution sponsored by Sen. Leo Jaramillo, D-Española, and Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, would place the idea on the ballot during this fall’s statewide election. 

“I heard from New Mexicans from before I won the senate about how they thought a commission should be the one helping decide the district lines to make it fair for every New Mexican and every voting district,” Jaramillo said. 

Rep. Natalie Figueroa, who has championed the idea over several years, said there’s “a very direct conflict of interest in the legislators drawing their own boundaries for their own districts.” In order for the public to have faith in democracy, the Albuquerque Democrat said, there needs to be no question that lawmakers might create maps in a way that intentionally protects their own ability to get elected in the future. 

In 2019, in a New Mexico In Depth report on redistricting, experts said New Mexico’s redistricting system offered few constraints on how lawmakers choose to draw political district boundaries. After that report was produced, lawmakers created an independent committee to gather input statewide, and then create a series of maps to inform the Legislature’s redistricting process. The Legislature ultimately adopted maps drawn by legislators, and not those recommended by the independent committee. But by many accounts, the maps the committee created improved the redistricting process in New Mexico, with some lawmakers saying the maps provided a starting point for lawmakers. 

A 2022 evaluation of the maps lawmakers adopted, co-authored by UNM political science professor Gabe Sanchez, found that lawmakers did gerrymander the maps to draw safe district boundaries for incumbent lawmakers of both political parties. 

“Although the enacted maps may not have been drawn to advantage one party over the other,” the authors wrote, “our findings suggest that they appear to have been drawn to keep incumbent parties in their districts and safe from partisan competition.”

Figueroa introduced a similar resolution in the House in 2022 and 2023, where it died in committee without reaching the House floor for a vote. This year, Figueroa said, “we needed to start it on the senate side to hear from legislators more about their concerns, and where they stand, if we’re going to build something that works for New Mexico,” she said. “We need input.”

Because the ballot question would be passed by lawmakers in the form of a legislative resolution to amend the state constitution, it doesn’t need the governor’s approval to be heard during this year’s short 30-day session, where crafting the state budget is priority No. 1, nor would it be subject to her veto pen. 

The proposal envisions nine commissioners who reflect the demographics and geography of New Mexico, and who are not elected officials. The mechanics for creating the commission call for the secretary of state to gather applications from across New Mexico, from which 120 people would be randomly selected. Legislative leaders could remove 12 names from consideration. From the resulting pool, six would be randomly selected, with those six then electing three more. The resolution details the resulting commission be evenly divided among Democrats, Republicans and Independents, and as much as possible reflect the ethnic, gender, and geographic diversity of the state.

Figueroa described the proposal as a “hybrid” random selection process since three commissioners would be elected by the six who were already appointed by the random drawing. That would allow the commissioners to select people needed to ensure demographic and geographic balance, or to provide expertise, she said. 

Figueroa said one other state — Michigan — uses a similar independent redistricting commission. The Michigan commission is fully selected through a random drawing, she said.

The idea is likely to face intense opposition among lawmakers from both political parties, some of whom argue they are elected to do such consequential work, and should be held accountable for it.

Another argument that percolates among Democrats is more practical. Democrats control the Legislature, with robust majorities in both the House and the Senate, and an independent commission would mean giving up some of the power that accompanies being the majority party.“If I’m running for the Legislature and my goal is to have clean air and clean water, increase education spending by 20 percent and protect a woman’s right to choose,” then-Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf said to Gwyneth Doland in 2019 for the report on redistricting, “and it’s easier for me to do that when the Democrats are in the majority, then why would I make it harder for the Democrats to win?”

Correction: The only other state that uses a random selection process, according to Figueroa, is Michigan, rather than Wisconsin as originally stated.

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