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Lawmakers to consider taking redistricting out of their own hands

Proposed redistricting maps posted on a wall inside the New Mexico state Capitol on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021, when the Legislature convened to draw new political boundaries.
Cedar Attanasio
Proposed redistricting maps posted on a wall inside the New Mexico state Capitol on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021, when the Legislature convened to draw new political boundaries.

Rep. Natalie Figueroa plans to introduce a bill in next month's legislative session that aims to establish an independent redistricting commission to limit lawmakers’ role in drawing their own maps. Figueroa says it’s a necessary next step in removing politics from New Mexico’s process.

If passed, the joint resolution would put the question of establishing the commission to voters, because it would require amending the constitution that currently gives lawmakers the power to draw the maps.

Figueroa, a Democrat representing Albuquerque, also sponsored the last bill to reform New Mexico’s process, the 2021 Redistricting Act.

It established the Citizen Redistricting Committee, which proposed maps to lawmakers without considering partisan data. She said she and others involved in that effort “did the best we could,” but weren’t able to require lawmakers to adopt a CRC map without making changes.

“We couldn’t get that through.” She said at a press conference hosted by nonprofit Fair Districts for New Mexico on December 14. “So, this is what we’re looking at now: How do we remove from the political process, as far as we can, the ability to draw districts from the legislators themselves?"

Lawmakers would still have some say. The new process would have the State Ethics Commission propose a list of 38 candidates to the Legislature. Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate would then be able to strike two candidates each — a maximum of eight. The ethics commission would select the final nine commissioners from that whittled-down list.

Ethics Commission Executive Director Jeremy Farris said this provision does the work of limiting lawmakers’ role, while also making it achievable in the Legislature.

“Right now, it just seems like a political necessity,” he said at the news conference announcing the proposal. “It seems that that just has to be part of this bill.”

In New Mexico, the Legislature must refer a constitutional amendment to the ballot. So, it’ll never get to voters if it doesn’t pass.

A similar resolution, also sponsored by Rep. Figueroa, stalled in the 2022 session. It did pass out of the House Government, Elections & Indian Affairs committee, but Republican Rep. Greg Nibert voted against it, believing the buck should stop with lawmakers.

“You’re just exchanging one group of folks’ politics for another,” he said of putting the power to draw voting districts in the hands of an independent commission rather than the Legislature. “And frankly, we are the body that is directly accountable to the people — this body would not.”

Rep. Gail Chasey was the only Democrat on the panel to vote it down.

“I don’t think it’s possible to have a completely independent, apolitical redistricting commission,” she told her colleagues when explaining her vote against the resolution.

She said, with nine years until the next round of redistricting, she wanted to see the Citizen Redistricting Committee process get another chance to succeed.

“I mean, I think it worked really well for the House, so I would like to endorse that process,” she said.

Figueroa said that now is the time to further reform redistricting in New Mexico because the last round is fresh in people’s minds, but also because it won’t go into effect until after the next census.

“To be honest, a lot of the current legislators will not be in office in 2030,” she said. “So they might be a little more open, a little more amenable right now to looking at a way of doing something differently and not feeling so personally territorial.”

To further de-politicize the process, the bill stipulates that commissioners can’t have held public office or been a paid lobbyist for the last 10 years, or run for office in the last five. The commission will also be made up of three Democrats, three Republicans and three who are registered with other parties or as Decline to State. And the chair must be a retired judge.

Figueroa said the independent commission would be given similar guidelines to the CRC on how to draw the maps, but with one big change. In hopes of avoiding the kind of gerrymandering called "incumbency protection," commissioners would not be allowed to consider sitting lawmakers’ addresses when drawing the district boundaries.

“And that’s tricky, and that’s very controversial,” she said when announcing the proposal. “And I imagine there’s going to be a great deal of discussion about it as it moves through the Legislature.”

Figueroa said that may mean more incumbents end up running against each other, which could create dramatic turnover in the Legislature.

“That could cause instability if there’s a loss of institutional knowledge, could cause some gridlock because the people who know how to get things done might be replaced by newbies,” she said.

Even so, the Representative said she supports the provision because it’s important for public trust.

A recent study by UNM professor Gabriel Sanchez found that while the new CRC process was an improvement, both the House and Senate engaged in incumbency protection, or “buddymandering,” in last year’s process.

“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,” he told KNME’s New Mexico In Focus.

The resolution that would do just that would also require the commission to reflect the racial, ethnic, gender and geographical diversity of the state. Figueroa said she “maybe naively” assumed that would be done when selecting members of the CRC, but it wasn’t. The seven-member committee had no Native American representation and only one woman.

Lawmakers will convene a 60-day legislative session to discuss this and other proposals on January 17, 2023.

The Your New Mexico Government project is a collaboration between KUNM and New Mexico PBS with support from the Thornburg Foundation.

Corrected: December 21, 2022 at 12:08 PM MST
This story has been corrected to reflect that joint resolutions that pass the New Mexico Legislature do not require the governor's signature.
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.
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