NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – Hoping to avoid the pitfalls that plagued the last few decades of redistricting, the Citizen Redistricting Committee is collecting public input to give each New Mexican a fair chance to choose their elected officials. In New Mexico, that also means ensuring that our state’s minority groups are represented.

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Native Americans — either as a single ethnic group or in combination with other ethnicities — make up a key population in our state at 12.4% of New Mexico’s population, according to the latest Census Bureau data. That’s an increase of about 20% from 2010.

If New Mexico seeks to give proportional representation to its Native Americans, that population group should make up a majority of voters in five state senate districts and at least eight state house districts. Currently, Native Americans make up a majority in only three senate districts and six house districts. That means right now, the population group is underrepresented.

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Interactive Slider: Only three state senate districts and six state house districts give Native American voters a fair reasonable chance to elect representatives, as defined in a 2002 court case over redistricting. Voting history compiled from the 2012 Presidential, 2016 Presidential, 2018 Governor, and 2018 Attorney General elections by DRA. Other data from UNM RGIS.

Back in 2002, the redistricting process ended up in court, where a retired district court Judge Frank H. Allen Jr. decided that if 60% of a district’s voting age population was composed of Native Americans, they would have sufficient voting power to elect the representative of their choice. Currently, Native American voters only hold significant voting power in a few districts in the northwest corner of the state.

To ensure Native voices are heard and to protect the population group’s voting power, the 2021 Citizen Redistricting Committee (CRC) has been working with groups such as the All Pueblo Council of Governors (APCG), a collection of the 20 different pueblo nations of New Mexico and Texas. APCG Executive Director Amber Carrillo says working with the CRC has been a positive experience so far.

“The members of the CRC — in particular Justice [Edward] Chávez and Joaquín Sanchez — reached out to us here at the All Indian Pueblo Council and really made sure that the Native American voices were heard, made sure that the meetings that they were scheduling were done in a place that people were happy with and people could attend,” Carrillo says. “We feel that they’re truly interested and sincerely interested in our needs.”

Those needs she’s referring to include ensuring that several districts have a Native American voting age population of at least 65%, that Native Americans do not lose districts during this round of redistricting, and that they retain the right to self-determination.

The idea of self-determination frequently came up in public testimony submitted to the CRC. “We ask the Citizens Redistricting Committee to respect our right to self-determination and honor our ability to decide what’s best for our people,” Arden Kucate, a councilman from Zuni told the CRC during a meeting at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center.

Carrillo explains that self-determination has to do with both governance and identity. “It is about being able to operate with other sovereigns, but it’s really about being able to maintain our self-identity and everything that we hold dear,” she says.

CRC Chair Edward Chávez told KRQE there’s legal precedent for protecting Native American self-determination by preserving communities of interest and minority voting power. He suggests this year’s redistricting should not drastically disrupt existing districts with relatively high Native American populations.

Chávez says that he hopes Native voters will one day get proportional representation in the state. But for now, he says the push to get additional districts for Native voters has to be balanced with the other requirements set in place by state and federal law.

“There’s a certain amount of deference that we should give to the tribal communities,” he says. “I would suggest that we take a look at the status quo and just make the adjustments or population changes to try to protect the districts that they currently have.”

While that sounds simple enough, Chávez points out there’s concern this year’s census may have miscounted certain communities, including Native Americans. “That’s going to be a challenge,” he says. “I’m not sure that we can do anything with it at this stage, but it’s something that we definitely need to alert the Legislature about.”

Amber Carrillo with the All Pueblo Council of Governors says she’s heard those concerns as well. “The census data is something that is causing all of us a great deal of concern,” she says. And while the US Census Bureau has been in contact with tribal members about ways to improve the count, Carrillo says that redistricting might benefit from alternative ways to count Native Americans.

One potential alternative is tribal enrollment numbers. But Carrillo says that tribes may be unwilling to share these counts with the government.

“Even if it could influence redistricting right now, I still feel like releasing tribal enrollment data sets a precedent that tribes, I think, are rightfully protective of,” she says. Their “relationship with the federal government has never been one that has been very easy on tribes. It’s been one that demands quite a bit from us,” she explains. “And so the requirement to share tribal enrollment data, I think, brings into question, ultimately, ‘how will this data be used?'”

Despite the challenges, and the fact that choosing districts is ultimately up to the New Mexico Legislature, Carrillo remains optimistic about this round of redistricting. And she says that in many cases, what’s good for New Mexico’s Native population is also good for non-Native New Mexicans. After all, the All Pueblo Council of Governors is interested in a strong economy and good education options here in the state.

“Our values and our desires really aren’t that different from others’,” she says. “And so our decisions, when it comes to redistricting, will ultimately probably be good for the state, and so I hope that that’s what people recognize.”

The CRC is continuing to take input from Native and tribal citizens. The next step for the CRC is to select preliminary concepts of district plans during an upcoming meeting that will occur Thursday, September 16. The public can attended the meeting virtually.