By Jake Stern-Powell
Every ten years, American democracy turns inside out. Instead of the voters electing their representatives through a majority vote, state legislators pull out their electoral maps and decide who their voters will be.
For democracy to stay representative, this process is necessary. Populations fluctuate. People move. Demographics shift, and if districts don’t evolve in parallel, their representatives are more statues than stewards.
Unfortunately, redistricting isn’t always centered on keeping democracy healthy.
It’s important to note that both parties gerrymander — they do — though the practice has tended to benefit Republicans more than Democrats.
(The Brennan Center estimates that Republicans gained a 16 to 17 Congressional seat advantage throughout the 2010s due to gerrymandering. Wisconsin serves as an extreme example at the state level; In 2018, Democrats won the majority of the statewide vote, every statewide office, and 36 out of the 99 state assembly seats.)
Fair Districts New Mexico is a nonpartisan campaign dedicated to stopping the practice of gerrymandering. The campaign started in 2019 as a partnership between the League of Women Voters of New Mexico and the Thornburg Foundation.
Its work runs on two tracks. First, it educates voters by hosting webinars, speaking at public meetings, and presenting to one of its 41 partner organizations.
They also team with their partner organizations — which include the Adelante Progressive Caucus, the ACLU of New Mexico, and the Republican National Hispanic Assembly of New Mexico — to advocate directly to the legislator. Their support helped the Redistricting Act pass in 2021.
This legislation, in part, established the Citizen Redistricting Committee, a bipartisan commission tasked to provide the New Mexico legislature with several suggestions for fair, transparent, and trusted district maps.
As impactful and effective as the CRC could make those maps, though, they were still only recommendations.
“[The CRC] was a big step in the right direction,” says Kathleen Burke, Project Coordinator for Fair Districts for New Mexico. “The problem is there is nothing which holds the legislature to choose their recommendations. The legislature really has the free will to toss all the recommendations of [the CRC] and, again, draw their own maps behind closed doors.”
While there are efforts to strengthen the CRC and make their maps less of a recommendation and more of a mandate, there is also concern that that may not be enough.
“[The CRC] can be rescinded or removed from New Mexico law at any time,” adds Burke. “Any legislature can say, ‘Oh, we’re not going to do that anymore.’”
Instead of creating a committee with more robust powers only to lose it to an unfriendly legislature, Fair Districts believes the ability to produce and enact new district maps should solely rest with an independent redistricting commission.
While legislators would have some say in who serves on the committee, they’d be unable to revise the committee’s maps.
However, getting from here to there isn’t a straightforward path. Indeed, Fair Districts suggests two avenues to accomplish this task.
First, a constitutional amendment could cement a truly independent redistricting commission, give it the sole authority to draw new district maps, and protect it from legislatorial intrusion.
Getting legislators to vote on giving up power is often a tough ask.
“It’s a very, very heavy lift at the legislature,” notes Burke. “But it is possible that with a lot of support from the community and a lot of pressure from our partners, we can convince our legislators to do this.”
They may already have the support to wield and pressure to exert, too. A recent survey found that 77% of correspondents support a truly independent redistricting commission in New Mexico.
The other potential way forward is a citizen’s initiative. However, this is not an obstacle-free route, either. Currently, New Mexico law does not allow citizens’ initiatives on the ballot. Since approval of an initiative process would be required before a particular redistricting initiative could be introduced, the process could take years.Then, there’d need to be a campaign to get the independent redistricting commission on the ballot as an initiative and for the majority of voters to approve.
Regardless of the chosen path, the first steps lie with us.
To advocate for fair districts and stay informed on this complex issue, Burke has three recommendations: