Local redistricting efforts highlight tough choices

Screen capture of the Albuquerque Citizens Redistricting Committee meeting on April 27, 2022

At a recent Zoom meeting of the Albuquerque Citizens Redistricting Committee, members furrowed their brows and squinted into their computer monitors, examining a newly drafted map that would balance population in each of nine City Council districts. 

Member Travis Kellerman, a self-described data-obsessed futurist, had asked the committee’s consultants to find a way to empower voters by dividing the council districts in a way that didn’t pack so many socioeconomically vulnerable residents into two districts in the city’s southern half. The new concept cut the city’s International District in half vertically, combining each piece with wealthier neighborhoods north of I-40. Residents of the condos around Uptown Mall would be in the same district as a large swath of lower-income southeast neighborhoods. 

Members asked longtime consultant Brian Sanderoff for some help interpreting what the changes would mean. 

“The International District could end up with two members or zero members [representing them on the Council] and that’s a risk that one takes,” he said. “So you need to ask what’s most important, to preserve the communities of interest or to unpack the socioeconomically vulnerable areas.” 

That debate demonstrates the tough choices that face residents and politicians this spring. Months after the New Mexico Citizens Redistricting Committee and the state Legislature wrapped up their work redrawing boundaries for legislative and congressional districts, smaller governmental bodies are tackling the tricky and politically charged task, with mixed results.

Senate “buddymandering” meltdown

The New Mexico state senate approved a map last night for how its own districts will look for the next 10 years. The vote came after days of hurry up and wait, as lawmakers negotiated behind closed doors in an untransparent process. I’d give senators an “F” on two counts: they didn’t do their work in public, and they focused way too much on preserving seats for incumbent lawmakers. More on this in a moment. 

Many are calling what happened last night on the Senate floor a debate. I’d call it a meltdown.

Pueblo map seeks to spread power, but Republicans fear loss of New Mexico House seat

New Mexico’s inaugural use of a nonpartisan committee in the once-a-decade political tradition that will reshape state elections for the next 10 years could mark a milestone Friday. The seven-member committee created by state lawmakers earlier this year is scheduled to select maps that would redraw the boundaries of  legislative and congressional political districts and send them on to New Mexico’s 112 state lawmakers. The process is undertaken after each U.S. Census to ensure political districts represent roughly the same number of people.New Mexico’s new Citizens Redistricting Committee’s recommendations are non-binding. State lawmakers will decide whether to accept or reject them and approve different plans when they meet in Santa Fe in December. But the committee’s monthslong process of collecting public input from hundreds of New Mexicans and disparate groups provides a window into choices before  the Legislature.

Newly disclosed prisoner addresses show 30% in Albuquerque. Advocates want to exclude them from political maps.

While nearly a third of New Mexico’s state prisoners who disclosed where they were living prior to incarceration gave Albuquerque addresses, in the country’s once-a-decade census they’re counted as living in smaller towns and rural areas.Roughly a quarter of New Mexico’s population lives in Albuquerque, so it’s no surprise to find a prevalence of residents from New Mexico’s largest city in the corrections system.But corrections data obtained by New Mexico In Depth suggest the city’s voting power is diffused to smaller towns and rural areas where New Mexico’s prisons are, a practice criminal justice reform advocates refer to as “prison gerrymandering.” That’s where prison communities — often rural, and nationally, more white — benefit as prisoners from elsewhere increase their populations without being able to vote. Advocates are pushing New Mexico to end the practice in coming months as the state’s new Citizen Redistricting Committee, and state lawmakers, participate in a once-a-decade redistricting that will shape New Mexico’s political landscape for years to come. 

And at least one says the last addresses inmates give corrections officials as they enter prison could achieve that goal.The ideal solution would be for the Corrections Department to hand over the same records it gave to New Mexico In Depth to the Citizen Redistricting Committee, said Mario Jimenez, campaign director of Common Cause New Mexico. If the committee were to request those records, the Corrections Department “would absolutely share that with them,” spokesman Eric Harrison wrote in an email. 

Samantha Osaki, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, said ending the practice of counting prisoners in the areas they’re imprisoned would create a more equitable redistricting process.“Bernalillo County residents who are already suffering from the loss of parents, friends and neighbors due to mass incarceration then doubly suffer from the loss of political representation,” Osaki said. New Mexico In Depth obtained the last addresses of 5,082 inmates after filing a records request. The Corrections Department initially refused to disclose the information but turned the records over after the New Mexico Attorney General’s office found the department had denied the request improperly.

Struggle, chaos, litigation, great cost: NM redistricting

See that howling coyote? We hired a local artist to draw this critter as a nod to the political cartoon Elkanah Tisdale drew in 1812, skewering Massachusetts’ then-governor, Elbridge Gerry, who had signed a redistricting bill designed to strengthen his party’s grip in the state Senate. More than 200 years later, Tisdale’s sketch of a menacing salamander remains the iconic image of a practice we didn’t have a name for until he penned it: gerrymandering. But state Senate District 39 looks more like a coyote than a salamander. It’s a creature that represents another aspect of what happens when sitting lawmakers draw their own districts.