NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – New Mexico is re-drawing its political boundaries, a consequential undertaking that happens just once every 10 years. The process, known as “redistricting,” aims to balance shifting populations and to help create fair elections. It can also change which elected officials represent portions of the state for the next decade.

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This time, the newly formed Citizen Redistricting Committee (CRC) is tasked with helping redraw voting boundaries. The group recently finished its first round of public input meetings across the state and will pick plans to propose to the New Mexico Legislature in the coming weeks.

Before their final recommendation is made, the CRC will hold more public meetings, including one Thursday, September 16, where the public will get a first look at the proposed maps. The hope from some lawmakers is that the highly public process will help avoid a lengthy, costly, and politically partisan court battle.

In the past, New Mexico legislators drew district lines after gathering public input. But letting politicians draw the map often raised suspicion, says KRQE political analyst and University of New Mexico professor Gabe Sanchez.

“Whenever you’ve got incumbent elected officials essentially tasked with the job of creating political districts, you’re always going to have this speculation that their maps are essentially going to advantage themselves,” he explains. “There was a perception that the legislators essentially got to pick their constituents rather than the other way around.”

But now, thanks to a law passed earlier this year, the CRC — which is made up of seven New Mexicans appointed to represent the cultural and geographic diversity of the state — gets to suggest how the map is drawn. The committee has already held meetings in Santa Fe, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Farmington, Roswell, Las Cruces, and Española.

So far, they’ve received a wide range of opinions and suggested maps from the public. For example, several New Mexicans have suggested a 90-degree shift in New Mexico’s congressional districts: Rather than splitting the state into three districts, with one central district and the other two districts splitting the state into a northern half and southern half, as it has been for decades, some folks are suggesting an east-west split.

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Interactive Slider: The current congressional lines split New Mexico into northern, southern, and central districts. Some proposed maps create an east-west divide instead. Data from Districtr.

State Democratic Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, representing Bernalillo, was among those who suggested an east-west split. “We’ve got this north-south divide that creates a heavily Democratic north [and] heavily Republican south,” he says. “I thought well, you know, maybe we ought to take a look at how we would make all three districts competitive and see if there’s any way of doing that.”

The state senator wasn’t the only one suggesting such a split. One submission, from Colton Dean, proposed a similar map, noting that: “It seems there is a tension between ‘Northern’ and ‘Southern’ New Mexico. I think an East/West map would help soften that tension.”

But not everyone is eager for such a dramatic change. Paul Dirdak, told the CRC that “New Mexico North” is a community of interest worth keeping together. “Notice that some of the early attempts are already creating districts by rotating New Mexico 90-degrees,” he wrote in his comments. “North, Metro and South portions of our state are proposed to be ‘improved’ by forcing them into a division of East, West, and some other totally novel region. This is a clear violation of the Commission’s principle of Communities of Interest,” he added.

Political analyst Gabe Sanchez says the varied maps and opinions people are offering in public input is what makes this year’s redistricting process unique: “What is exciting to me about having the independent redistricting commission is the opportunity to have more input from the community with these types of maps that maybe don’t look similar to what you’re used to seeing,” he says. Although it may be a bit of a challenge for the CRC to take into account all the various suggestions in their final recommendations, he says there’s no big downside to this year’s new process.

“In fact, one of the biggest critiques of redistricting overall, not just in New Mexico but nationally, is that the public doesn’t get enough opportunity to weigh in on this,” he explains. There’s often the feeling that, although redistricting is supposed to benefit the public, it’s too complex for individuals to chime in. So, “anything that can do away with that critique and allow more public input has to be perceived as positive.”

Senator Ortiz y Pino says he hopes public input will allow New Mexico to redraw lines without the difficulty — and costs — that were involved the last few times around. Edward L. Chávez, the chair of this year’s Citizen Redistricting Committee seems to share the same goal.

During the last redistricting process in 2011, both Senate and House district maps were passed by the Legislature, but the governor vetoed the maps. Then, a handful of lawsuits were filed, arguing that the state failed to create a fair map. A decision on how to redraw the maps was finally approved by the New Mexico Supreme Court in early 2012. The redistricting process also ended up in court the time before that, when the governor opposed the Legislature’s maps in 2001. That case was decided by a district court judge in 2002.

“Unfortunately, the last two decades, the Legislature and the governor have not succeeded” in creating maps that give New Mexicans “a fair and equal opportunity” to elect representatives, Chávez said during a public input meeting in Santa Fe. “As a result of that, it’s been a huge taxpayer bill — over $6 million in attorney fees and costs.”

And it’s not just about the money. “What was worse,” Chávez said, “is the legislators admitting that they did not, or could not, take into consideration public input.”

Senator Ortiz y Pino says this year there will likely still be a lot of back-and-forth within the Legislature, but he’s hopeful the maps won’t lead to court: “What I’m hoping is that the maps they [the CRC] give us are so reasonable, and make so much sense, that the public will say, well if we [the legislators] attempt to screw around with those maps, if we try to change them too drastically, the public will say, ‘No, no, no. You guys are playing games with this,'” Senator Ortiz y Pino explains.

Although Ortiz y Pino and Chávez note this year’s process is more democratic, there’s no guarantee the CRC’s maps will be representative of the public’s wishes, or that the Legislature will even adopt the recommended maps. The new law that created the CRC still gives the Legislature power to reject the CRC’s recommendations. “I would have loved to have seen the commission actually be empowered to do the redistricting,” Ortiz y Pino says. “The way we wound up doing it, they give us, the Legislature, some maps and then we decide, but I think it would have been better the other way around.”