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State legislature kicks off special session with focus on redistricting

Arianna Sena

The state legislature met Monday, Dec. 6, for a special session with the goal of redrawing voting districts for the state legislature, U.S. House and Public Education Commission. This is a process that takes place every 10 years following the new Census numbers. Marisa Demarco - Editor-in-Chief of Source New Mexico, a new local outlet with a focus on state government – spoke with KUNM about what to expect as the session continues.

KUNM: So what are state lawmakers tasked with doing in this special session as far as the redistricting process goes?

MARISA DEMARCO: This really sets the stage for elections in the state for the next decade. State lawmakers are looking at maps of the whole state and new info from the Census, like you said, and drawing lines around the voting districts. And as you can imagine, this process can get pretty heated. Because there's opportunity for lawmakers to draw those new lines to their advantage so that they can be pretty sure that they'll hold on to their seats, or that their political party could maintain power over the next 10 years.

KUNM: And the legislators are considering a set of proposed maps from the Citizen Redistricting Committee, which is the first. Can you remind us what that work looked like?

DEMARCO: Yeah. So, you know, around the whole country, redistricting fights got pretty partisan. And there were efforts to change that up to prevent gerrymandering. I saw a slogan that summed it up pretty well, like, 'You should pick your politicians, not the other way around,' right? So, here, a law was passed to create the Citizen Redistricting Committee. And this is seven people. The committee is built not to lean too far left or right. And these folks, they had meetings all over the state starting this summer, and they reported today to the Senate that they got over 2,000 comments from the public about what these maps should look like. And that info comes from Source reporter Austin Fisher. So, the committee came up with three maps for each of the political bodies they're redistricting for: as you mentioned, both chambers of the legislature, the state's Public Education Commission, plus voting district for who New Mexico sends the U.S. House of Representatives.

KUNM: Right. And there are some concerns still, despite the CRC's work, around fairness and transparency in this process, no?

DEMARCO: Yeah, so after all that work – went all over the state and all of that input - the legislature is not obligated to adopt the maps that everyone came up with. So, it's totally possible for lawmakers to look at those maps and change them, or ignore them completely and draw their own. And we had a story by Patrick Lohmann about that. A tribal coalition is also concerned that the map won't adequately reflect the population of Native Americans in the state. And that will mean again that their voting power doesn't end up being anywhere near what it should be. So, we heard from the political director for New Mexico Native Vote before the session started, that the process is not looking too clear and transparent before it happened. Those are some of the things that we're keeping our eye on as we cover this.

KUNM: And things up at the Roundhouse, for those who do want to engage, things are looking a little different than usual right now. What are folks seeing if they're up in Santa Fe?

DEMARCO: So, they have to show proof of vaccinations to get into the Roundhouse or recent negative COVID test, they have to show ID, and they're also scanning for firearms and weapons because guns were banned from the Roundhouse this session for the first time. And it used to be that sometimes we would see people with open carry licenses who would bring their guns in, especially when lawmakers were talking about gun laws. And of course, everyone has to wear a face mask.

KUNM: And so those are some of the COVID rules, some of the new rules up at the Roundhouse if you are planning on heading up there to observe these hearings and the meetings around redistricting. Now, Marisa, redistricting itself is not actually the only thing on lawmakers plates for this special session. Is that right?

DEMARCO: Yeah, the governor surprised a lot of folks last week by adding another thing to this already kind of stressful session. Legislators will be trying to agree about how to divvy up over $1.1 billion in federal stimulus money. So, lawmakers sued the governor earlier this year saying she couldn't spend that money on her own without their approval. They won that fight in the state Supreme Court, and then she dropped the spending of that money on this session here at the end of the year. They were kind of expecting that to be part of the regular session in January.

KUNM: And now – just a few seconds – any sense of how long we can expect this session to last?

DEMARCO: My reporters in Santa Fe said they keep hearing two weeks, but it's really hard to say at this point.

This segment is part of our #YourNMGov project, in collaboration with KUNM radio. Support for public media provided by the Thornburg Foundation.

Nash Jones (they/them) is a general assignment reporter in the KUNM newsroom and the local host of NPR's All Things Considered (weekdays on KUNM, 5-7 p.m. MT). You can reach them at nashjones@kunm.org or on Twitter @nashjonesradio.