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Watchdog group wants independent commission to have final say in redistricting

Redistricting protestors
Cedar Attanasio/AP
Protesters rally outside the state Capitol in support of a federal congressional redistricting proposal on Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Democrats who control both chambers of the state Legislature have endorsed much of the map, but the Senate drew fire from progressives for tweaks that would dilute the voting power of Native Americans some local districts district.

The special legislative session focused on redrawing the state’s voting maps ended last month. KUNM’s Nash Jones spoke with Kathleen Burke, program coordinator of Fair Districts for New Mexico, to hear how the watchdog group thought the process went this time around and where the state’s effort stands today.

KATHLEEN BURKE: Redistricting is, for the most part, done. The one exception being that we're still waiting for the governor to sign the New Mexico Senate map. She has until Jan. 6 to do that. But aside from that, the other maps she has signed, and they take effect at different times, but let's just say effective 2022, those maps are in place.

KUNM: And that's the House map, the Public Education Commission map and the U.S. Congressional map.

BURKE: Correct.

KUNM: And so she has yet to sign the Senate map, the SB2, as you said. Is there a sense of why she's not yet signed it?

BURKE: Our best guess is that that map has been fairly controversial. It was not a CRC map.

KUNM: And the “CRC” is the Citizen Redistricting Committee that engaged the public and then submitted recommendations to the legislature on maps that they would like to see.

BURKE: Yes. The Senate did not choose a CRC map. So, it's a little less of, let's say, a predetermined or safe course. And so I would imagine that the governor is taking some extra time to really comb through the details and make sure that she agrees with what's being presented to her for the Senate.

KUNM: Now, your organization, Fair Districts for New Mexico, was not endorsing or opposing, for that matter, any particular maps. But instead, advocating for the process to be fair and transparent. In that vein, how did you think the process went in the State House of Representatives?

BURKE: For the New Mexico house, they chose a CRC map. And then they updated it a bit to include the native consensus map, which was not yet ready when the CRC released their proposed maps. So, the House did a tremendous job. It was simple, transparent, they followed through with using a CRC map with very little to-do whatsoever.

KUNM: And now, how about the Senate? That process went quite a bit differently in that chamber, no?

BURKE: Right. And we don't know a whole lot about what went on there because so much of it was done behind closed doors. Whereas the House adopted a CRC map, the Senate did not. From what we can piece together, they sort of went back to the drawing board themselves and detailed a map that suited them. Not to say that that map is wrong, but it is not what we requested.

KUNM: What had you requested?

BURKE: That they choose a CRC map that the Citizen Redistricting Committee had already designed and tested and was found to be free of racial bias, free of partisan bias. The CRC did the hard work of rifling through the data, of rifling through all the public comment. Let's take the CRC's lead and just adopt one of their maps. Again, the New Mexico Senate chose to do it according to their own wishes.

KUNM: Because they didn't even introduce a Citizen Redistricting Committee map?

BURKE: That's right. Which they are legally allowed to do. The law in New Mexico still gives the legislature the authority to decide these maps. That is the reality we have in New Mexico today.

KUNM: Redistricting does happen every decade. So, in 10 years, New Mexico will get another chance at this. Based on how this first-ever effort with the Citizen Redistricting Committee recommendations went, what would you like to see change for the 2031 process?

BURKE: We would like to see an independent redistricting commission. Which is very much what we wanted for this session, but we weren't able to accomplish it this time around. We were able to improve on the old system by having implemented the CRC, the redistricting committee.

KUNM: When you say independent commission, do you mean one that is binding?

BURKE: One that is binding. In other words, one that has the power to make the decisions.

KUNM: So, what would need to happen for that to be possible?

BURKE: We need to ask our legislature to pass legislation that allows us – we the people – to have a constitutional amendment question on the ballot: whether we do or do not want to add an independent redistricting commission.

KUNM: How can the public engage in this conversation?

BURKE: We are holding a live meeting tonight, Jan. 4. It will be discussion and planning. That's at 6:30 MT on Zoom.

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

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