NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – After a heated court battle over the state’s election district boundaries, Judge Fred T. Van Soelen has issued a 14-page conclusion. His take after hearing allegations that Democratic lawmakers gerrymandered New Mexico’s three congressional districts is: Republicans’ votes were diluted, but it didn’t rise to an “egregious gerrymander.”

The debate goes back to 2021 when New Mexico was redrawing its political boundaries in a process called redistricting. The process happens every 10 years to try to keep political voting boundaries relatively fair as local populations change. To try to avoid a lawsuit, the state asked an independent redistricting committee to recommend new maps to the legislature. But even with a committee trying to create fair maps, politicians soon found themselves in a court battle.

After considering three maps for redrawn congressional districts, New Mexico’s Democratically controlled legislature opted to approve a fourth map instead, one drawn up by the lawmakers.

Casting aside the recommended maps, Democratic lawmakers soon found themselves in a lawsuit brought by the Republican Party of New Mexico. They claimed in court documents that the maps chosen by the legislature “accomplish a political gerrymander that unconstitutionally dilutes the votes of the residents of southeastern New Mexico.”

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New Mexico’s legislature rejected three maps recommended by an independent committee.

The southern portion of the state had been bouncing back and forth between being represented by Republicans and being represented by Democratic politicians. In the 2022 election, Democratic candidate Gabe Vasquez took the seat from Republican Yvette Herrell in a close race.

Republicans argued the map deciding which New Mexicans could vote in that election was biased. “This is the worst or one of the worst maps in New Mexico’s history,” said Misha Tseytlin, attorney for the plaintiffs.

Democratic politicians and members of the legislature argued that the map was competitive, and that it gave both parties a chance at winning an election. “SB 1 [the bill that approved the map] is not an egregious partisan gerrymander for one very simple reason: Under this plan, Congressional District 2 is a highly competitive toss-up district that either party can win,” said Sara Sanchez, attorney for the defendants.

Now, District Judge Fred T. Van Soelen has issued his conclusion. In a court filing, he wrote that the “predominant purpose of redrawing CD 2 [the southern district] in SB 1 was to entrench the Democratic Party in power by diluting the votes of citizens favoring Republicans.”

Van Soelen wrote that there is sufficient evidence to say Republicans were “cracked.” In other words, the evidence shows the maps split up Republican voters into multiple districts in order to dilute their voting power, for example, Lea and Eddy Counties were split into two districts, Van Soelen noted.

Trying to argue on the contrary, Democratic lawmakers and the defendants in the case said the boundaries in the map were meant to allow the oil industry in the southern portion of the state to have multiple voices in Washington, D.C. To accomplish this, the map adds land from southeast New Mexico to both Congressional District 1 and Congressional District 3.

Judge Van Soelen wrote that the defendants didn’t prove that splitting up that land was beneficial for residents.

While the case shows evidence of partisan political vote dilution, Van Soelen wrote that the dilution does not rise to the level of gerrymandering that violates the rights of voters. While the maps were intended on “intrenching” Democratic power, Van Soelen wrote that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to prove that they were actually successful in entrenching their power. So, he concludes that the map doesn’t violate residents’ equal protection rights under the state’s constitution.

The New Mexico Governor’s Office released the following statement:

The governor signed these maps with full belief in their constitutionality, and we are pleased to see the court’s decision today.

The New Mexico Secretary of State’s Office released the following statement in reaction to the verdict:

“Our interest in this case is that we needed clarity about the map in order to properly plan for the 2024 elections. We’re pleased that the issue has now been decided so we can continue planning for the 2024 elections.”

Alex Curtas, Director of Communications, New Mexico Office of the Secretary of State

The Republican Party of New Mexico also provided the following statement:

“Today’s decision was bigger than Republican or Democrat. It struck at the heart of our Republic, the form of government that allows all beliefs to have a voice.

Judge Van Soelen agreed that there was partisan gerrymandering in the district map for CD2, but we disagree with his ruling that it was not an egregious gerrymander. Our legal team presented a clear case that the legislature intended to and, in fact, did egregiously gerrymander the congressional maps to shift the second district by 18 points in favor of Democrats.

Text messages provided during discovery from Senate President Pro Tempore Mimi Stewart reveal her bragging, ‘The People’s Map was 51.8%. That’s not enough for a mid term (sic) election.’ In order to get a big enough Democratic swing, she claims, ‘we adjusted some edges, scooped up more of abq and are now at 53%.’

The Democrat expert witness also testified that the Democrat lawyers instructed him to design 1,000 maps that resembled the gerrymandered map that the legislature drew.

The legislative redistricting map and all 1,000 of his so-called “random” maps split Lea and Eddy counties, thereby “cracking” the conservative vote in the southeast part of the state. The witness admitted under oath that he had never been instructed to divide a state in the fashion he had been directed to in New Mexico.

The gerrymandered districts disenfranchise the votes of all conservative voters: Hispanic, Native American, Black and all other pro-family, pro-parent, pro-gun, pro-life voters, farmers, and oil and gas workers. Democrat, Republican, and Independents alike have lost their voice. New Mexico’s primary industry is undermined, and jobs are at stake.

The Republican Party of New Mexico believes the fight is too important to accept this setback without contest.

On behalf of all disenfranchised voters in the state of New Mexico, RPNM will be appealing our case to the New Mexico Supreme Court.”

The Democratic Party of New Mexico also provided the following statement:

“It is no surprise that the New Mexico Republican Party lost its bogus lawsuit attempting to throw out competitive, fairly-drawn maps. Steve Pearce’s defunct New Mexico Republican Party is merely looking to place blame somewhere for their recent election losses.

“Crafting of the current maps followed a non-partisan, deliberative process that was informed by and invited expert and public input from communities across the state and subsequently went through the complete legislative process in committees and both chambers. In fact, these districts were intentionally crafted to be less partisan and more competitive than the previous ones.  

“Unfortunately for New Mexicans, the GOP in our state has become so beholden to the conspiratorial far-right that they continue to try to discredit the electoral process when they lose instead of running candidates who work to improve the lives of everyday New Mexicans.”