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Redistricting report reveals public desire for independent commission

Professor Gabriel Sanchez, co-author of a recent report evaluating New Mexico's 2021 redistricting process, speaks with New Mexico PBS Correspondent Gwyneth Doland on New Mexico In Focus, Oct. 7, 2022.
New Mexico In Focus
Professor Gabriel Sanchez, co-author of a recent report evaluating New Mexico's 2021 redistricting process, speaks with New Mexico PBS Correspondent Gwyneth Doland on New Mexico In Focus, Oct. 7, 2022.

With the midterm elections upon us, some New Mexico voters are casting ballots from new districts — whether state, federal or both. The new maps came out of last year's revamped redistricting process, which saw the newly-formed Citizen Redistricting Committee (CRC) engage with the public early on, refuse partisan data and recommend maps to lawmakers to make the final call. A new report looks at the strengths and weaknesses of this new process, and the lessons learned for the next go around. New Mexico In Focus Correspondent Gwyneth Doland with KUNM media partner New Mexico PBS sat down with co-author Professor Gabriel Sanchez to discuss the study's key takeaways.

GABRIEL SANCHEZ: If I had to say what's the one take-home message, it's we had a much better process and outcomes with the CRC in place this cycle, but I think both the public and the experts I talked to are ready to go to the next step and have a truly independent commission with actually binding map decisions that doesn't have to rely on the legislature.

GWYNETH DOLAND: In terms of some of the problems that we have seen in the past, the number one thing that people said to me — people who had been a part of it, lawmakers, demographers — said that the legislature pursues an incumbent protection plan. They draw districts that they are going to win next time. But that was anecdotal. You found some evidence for it.

SANCHEZ: The line you often hear is, 'We should make sure that we have constituents that pick their legislators, not the other way around.' In the survey, we asked folks about their perception of how that was done. Unfortunately, the legislature — and particularly the Senate — wasn't rated very well by the public. And probably more importantly, we actually had map analysis. Dr. David Cottrell, who actually did all the map analysis for the CRC itself, lent his expertise to our cause. When it came to looking at incumbency advantage, he found that there was unfortunately evidence that there were more protection of incumbents through the legislature's maps, more so than the CRC and a bunch of computer generated algorithm based maps that are supposed to take politics out of the equation.

DOLAND: You've got Democrats in control of the legislature and the governor's office. A lot of people said, 'They are just going to run the show here and advantage themselves the whole way.' Did you find that for the legislature?

SANCHEZ: We actually didn't find strong evidence that there was any partisan gerrymandering, at least in the state maps. And, in fact, even Republicans we spoke with had to give credit to Democrats and said, 'You know, they really could have made this much worse for us. And they really did put forth, at least in terms of partisan gerrymandering, a pretty fair set of maps.' I was predicting, actually — and a lot of folks I know on the legislature would tell me, 'You know, Gabe, I'm with you principally on this, but we're going to have an opportunity to really take it to Republicans.' And so I perceived going into this we were going to see a lot more extremity in that. And reality is there really wasn't a big problem there.

DOLAND: This is the first time that an advisory commission was part of the process. Overall, how did the commission do?

SANCHEZ: At least on a couple of really important pieces of the puzzle, they did an outstanding job. Everybody we talked to, and the evidence that we collected, suggests that this was probably the most successful redistricting cycle, at least in recent memory in the state of New Mexico. And everybody attributed that to the presence of the CRC. And one area where I think it really stood out was in terms of community engagement. We saw it a number of different ways in our analysis, much more engagement from the public than you typically see. And I think that was definitely a result of the CRC's presence.

DOLAND: But you do have some recommendations for improvements.

SANCHEZ: Yeah, even though a lot of wins, I'd say technology was a big win that should be continued. But of course, there's always recommendations of things that didn't go well. If we're talking specifically about the CRC, you've got to start with who is actually on the committee and how that naming process and vetting process worked. You had very low levels of gender representation, you had no Native Americans, almost exclusively from Albuquerque and other metro areas. Let's do a better job with that I think is the No. 1 thing that I heard. And you also had a whole lot of concerns about the role of the legislature. It led to a lot of folks in the community perceiving the CRC didn't really have the power and authority to do as much as we would like to have seen, because at the end of the day, in many cases, it looked like the legislature just threw things out and did their own things. Unfortunately, sometimes behind closed doors without transparency.

DOLAND: We are going into this midterm with new districts. What do you think we're going to find?

SANCHEZ: All eyes, in my opinion, should be on our southern congressional district. But I think, at the end of the day, we'll probably see the implications of some of the changes made to that district — we're talking about a lot of primarily Latino voters moved from the South Valley area down into that southern district — in 2024 actually, when turnout is going to be much greater. You often see lower turnout among Latinos in the southern area than you do in the rest of the state. So, I don't know if some of those shifts in redistricting will actually make a difference and allow Democrats take that seat over now. But look out in 2024.

KUNM's Nash Jones contributed to this report. An extended version of this conversation originally aired on New Mexico In Focus on New Mexico PBS. This excerpt is republished here with permission. Click here to watch the full interview.

Gwyneth Doland has been a reporter and editor for newspapers, magazines, online news, radio and television. She's reported for our media partner New Mexico PBS since 2008.
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