NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – The Citizen Redistricting Committee (CRC) is making suggestions on how to redraw New Mexico’s political maps. They’ve heard from more than 100 New Mexicans in the first round of public comment. All of this testimony will culminate in a series of plans the committee will present to the New Mexico Legislature by October 31. But why redraw the maps at all?

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At the heart of the process is making sure that each district has more or less equal population. “The census numbers, basically, are the basis for all of the math and even the theoretical thinking about what those maps should look like,” explains KRQE Political Analyst Gabe Sanchez. “Although New Mexico’s overall population statewide didn’t shift all that much over the last 10 years, you do see pockets of the state where there has been a significant growth in population.”

Population growth can dilute the voting power of residents, if not accounted for in redistricting. So without changing the existing political boundaries, the weight of each voter’s voice in the certain portions of the state could be weaker — or stronger — than their voice has been in the past. The CRC will try to account for that.

The committee has a tough job ahead: The maps are required by law to be based, at least in part, on all the testimony the committee receives, while also meeting state and federal requirements. If they succeed, New Mexicans should have districts free from gerrymandering.

The CRC will submit three suggested maps for New Mexico’s congressional districts, three maps for the state house of representatives districts, three maps for the state senate districts, and three maps for Public Education Commission districts. According to state law, these maps must meet the following criteria:

  • The three congressional districts must be “as equal in population as practicable.”
  • The 42 state senate districts cannot differ more than 10% in population.
  • The 70 state house districts cannot differ more than 10% in population.
  • Proposed maps cannot split existing precincts, the smallest unit of area that are combined into districts. These are often the same as voting locations.
  • Districts must comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which among other protections, says that the voting strength of a minority group cannot be diluted by redistricting.
  • Race can be considered during redistricting, but cannot be the main reason district lines are drawn a certain way.
  • Each district must have only one representative.
  • Districts must be “consistent with traditional districting principles.”
  • Districts shall be contiguous. In other words, you shouldn’t have to leave your district’s boundary to reach any part of your district — it should be contained all in one single shape rather than several disconnected shapes.
  • Districts should be reasonably compact, not drawn-out or unnecessarily squiggly in shape.
  • Districts should try to preserve communities of interest, which are groups of people with shared values, cultures, heritage, or lifestyles.
  • Districts should take into consideration geographic and political boundaries — including Pueblo, tribal, and Native American boundaries.
  • Districts should try to preserve the core of existing districts.

Congressional Districts

Given population changes across the state, if the three existing congressional districts remain unchanged, recent population growth in the southeastern portion of the state would lead to a population deviation of roughly 1.6% across the three districts, according to data available on District. That’s relatively high for congressional districts, which are supposed to be “as equal in population as practicable,” according to state law. For comparison, in New Jersey in the 1980s, the courts decided a deviation of only 0.6984% was too great of a difference.

New Mexico’s current congressional districts were based on an ideal population of 686,393 people per district, but given the 2.8% increase in the state’s population since the last census, the new ideal is 705,841 people per district. There are about 11,300 too few people in the existing Congressional District 1 (central New Mexico), and about 8,200 too many people in existing Congressional District 2 (southern New Mexico).

The goal of redistricting is not only to balance the population but to ensure elections are competitive, that is, each district has a similar number of voters from each party so that both parties have a chance at winning. The existing congressional districts in New Mexico are not particularly competitive. In the central and northern districts, roughly 60% of voters lean Democratic, meaning the odds are in favor of the Democrats, according to an analysis of the 2012 presidential, 2016 presidential, 2018 governor, and 2018 attorney general elections conducted by DRA, a volunteer-based redistricting team.

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Interactive Slider: New Mexico’s existing congressional districts aren’t close in population nor are they especially competitive. Data from US Census Bureau, UNM RGIS, DRA.

Across the state, the 2020 census showed a decrease in the population of people identifying as “white alone.” This apparent decrease in the white-only population is most pronounced in the southern portion of the state. It’s possible this change in people identifying as “white alone” is simply a change in how people identify themselves, rather than an actual decrease in population. But, if the Census Bureau data does represent actual population change, that could mean there’s also been a change in partisan support in the southern portion of the state.

Traditionally, 89.8% of white voters in Congressional District 2, the southern portion of the state, have voted Republican, according to DRA data. Non-white minority voters in that district have traditionally voted Democratic, with 75.6% of minority voters supporting Democrats. This means the southern portion of the state has likely become more competitive.

Meanwhile, Congressional Districts 1 and 2 also saw a decrease in the number of people identifying as “white alone.” This may be one of the reasons why these districts lean Democratic — and that lean may have increased in recent years. The current round of redistricting could take that into account and provide for more competitive elections within these districts.

State Senate and House Districts

If existing districts remain in place, there would be a population imbalance of nearly 33% across state senate districts, according to data from DRA. That’s more than three times the legally allowed deviation.

State Senate District 2 representing Bloomfield, Aztec and surrounding areas in the northwest, currently represented by Republican Steven Neville, has the lowest population at only about 43,800 residents, while several other senate districts have just over 60,000 residents, according to data available on District. The ideal state senate district — found by taking the state’s total population and dividing by the total number of districts — would have about 50,417 residents.

In addition to being unequal in population, the current state senate districts are not competitive. More than half of the districts lean Democratic, while only nine lean Republican, according to historical voting data compiled by DRA. Six districts are currently competitive, with Democratic and Republican voter populations being roughly equal.

Existing house districts have a population deviation of nearly 50% between the largest and smallest district, according to DRA data. As with senate districts, there’s a relatively strong Democratic lean: 40 of the 70 districts lean Democratic, and only 17 districts are competitive, according to voting data analyzed by DRA. This means, in a majority of the districts, incumbents are likely to be uncontested or at least have an advantage.

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The counties with the greatest and least percentage change in population were both Republican majority-voting counties. But generally speaking, population change didn’t coincide with political preference at the county level. Data from US Census Bureau and New Mexico Secretary of State.

Moving Towards New Maps

Given that existing districts do not meet all the required standards, district lines are bound to change. But it’s unclear how drastic of a change the Citizen Redistricting Committee’s (CRC) proposed maps will bring.

“It is a bit early to evaluate how the maps this cycle might differ from what is in place now,” says KRQE Political Analyst Sanchez. “The balance between protection of incumbents and increased political competition is one of the biggest challenges with redistricting. How maps this cycle are created based on these two important principles will be something to look for.” 

“What I would pay close attention to is whether or not the maps that come from the independent commission [the CRC] have a different approach in terms of protecting incumbency than what [historically] comes out of the Legislature,” Sanchez explains. “That will go a long way to really answering the question of whether or not this independent commission has gone far enough.” If not, he adds, the next step might be a constitutional amendment to remove incumbent legislators from the redistricting decision-making process.