Dem control of the NM house will remain unchanged, but the redistribution process may not

The election of all 70 seats in the New Mexico House of Representatives this month was the first attempt at a new district map. The state and US Congress maps were redrawn late last year after the 2020 census. While Democratic control of the House of Representatives will remain the same, the redistribution process may not.

The State House map, unlike the new US Congress map, has been praised for its partisan fairness. Gabriel Sanchez, a University of New Mexico professor who evaluated the pre-election redistribution process, told New Mexico PBS he found no compelling evidence of partisan manipulation in the state maps.

“And actually, even the Republicans that we spoke to had to give the Democrats credit and say, ‘You know, they really could have made it a lot worse for us,'” Sanchez told Focus in New Mexico. “And they’ve actually presented — at least in terms of partisan gerrymandering — a pretty fair collection of cards.”

The Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which issues testimonials for maps across the country, gave the New Mexico house map a grade of 1 for partisan fairness. However, it received a B overall, downgraded from a C for a lack of competitive counties and an unsatisfactory grade for its geographic features, with so many counties crossing county lines.

Low competition and shaky boundaries could be attributed to the kind of gerrymandering Sanchez’s team found — so-called “buddymandering.”

“Unfortunately, there was evidence that incumbent operators were better protected by the legislature’s cards,” he said. “More than the CRC and a bunch of computer-generated algorithm-based maps designed to take politics out of the equation.”

The CRC is the Citizen Redistricting Committee. Last year, for the first time, the panel engaged the public and proposed maps to lawmakers without using partisan data. Legislators didn’t have to opt for a CRC card, however, and most of the time they didn’t.

Sanchez’s report cites several people with knowledge of the process who said the House met behind closed doors before the CRC even finished its work and that there were concerns about transparency when the final card was released to so many officiating legislature protected.

Only two MPs running for re-election lost seats. Democrat Candy Sweetser in southwest New Mexico — although that race is likely headed for a recount — and Republican Jane Powdrell-Culbert in District 44, northwest of Albuquerque.

Powdrell-Culbert, the only black Republican representative, was a vocal critic of the Democrat-led process last December, saying her district was “destroyed.”

“To be perfectly honest, this process sucks,” she told her colleagues and the spokesperson. “This process that we have and that we went through was not an honest process. And we knew as we responded that it was for majority rule. That’s just called politics.”

Analysts come to different estimates of how drastically the party balance in their district has changed.

The Princeton Gerrymandering Project estimates it saw a 14% swing to the left. It uses data from the last elections for the President, the US Senate and the Governor. While New Mexico-based Research & Polling Inc. gives the Democrats an 8% share of the vote in District 44, that takes a decade of all statewide election results into account.

Brittany Poss, director of data and analytics at Research & Polling, said using all of the statewide races helps “smooth out” the difference between presidential election-year results and mid-term election results, when turnout is typically lower and the performance of one District can look different.

Democrats and Republicans also each lost an open house seat to the other party. If the recounts don’t change results, the party balance of the chamber will remain nearly the same (the vacant seat of a retiring Republican who became independent was won by a Republican).

District 23 in the Corrales area was already Republican-leaning, although it has been held by Democrat Damon Ely since 2017. He sponsored the new house card at last year’s meeting.

“I think the reason I’m being hired to sponsor this is because I’m not running,” he told a House committee looking at the card. “And so I don’t find myself in that conflict, other than the fact that I’m a Democrat.”

He commended the CRC and tribal leadership for their contributions to the final house map, although Research & Polling Inc. estimates his district has become about 4% redder than before.

“When it comes to the House map, we should all be proud of it as a body — Democrats and Republicans,” he told fellow lawmakers.

His district was won by Republican Alan Martine by eight percentage points.

Meanwhile, Democrats took over District 38 in southern New Mexico, which was left open by Republican Rep. Rebecca Dow when she ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination for governor. The district has had Republican representation since 1969, according to legislative records, but its partisan performance was turned on its head when Democrats grew about 6% stronger on the new map.

Overall, Professor Sanchez concluded that changes in the state maps “were not manipulated to advance the interests of one party over the other.”

More controversial was the reorganization of the US southern congressional district, where Democrat Gabe Vasquez narrowly beat Republican incumbent Yvette Herrell. The legislature had included portions of Albuquerque’s South Valley and Westside in the district, tilting it to the left. The Republican Party has sued over this card, and the Supreme Court will hear the case in January. Regardless of the verdict, this month’s election results stand.

The fact also remains that the Citizen Redistricting Committee maps were not used directly. The legislator has either discarded them or optimized them.

Kathleen Burke of the non-partisan watchdog group Fair Districts for New Mexico told KUNM that the closest the House has come to recognizing the work of the independent committee, which collected public input.

“They chose a CRC map and then updated it a bit to include the Native Consensus Map, which wasn’t ready when the CRC released their proposed maps,” she said. “Well, the house did a great job.”

According to Sanchez’s report, tribal leaders felt comfortable dealing with the house surrounding a new map, noting that the discussions were “very positive and respectful.” The same cannot be said for the Senate, where a tribal-favored card was replaced at the last minute.

Fair Districts for New Mexico, members of the CRC and even some lawmakers say politicians shouldn’t have the power to tinker with the CRC’s maps. That’s how it works in 10 other states, including neighboring Colorado and Arizona, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Appropriate legislation is on the agenda. Democratic MP Natalie Figueroa plans to introduce another bill in the January legislature.

“At this point, it’s a question of public trust in our institutions,” she said of why she’s campaigning for the change. “For legislators to draw their own legislative maps is an inherent conflict of interest.”

A version of the resolution stalled at this year’s session. She’s tweaking it based on feedback and hoping it goes faster this time, saying people need to have faith lawmakers aren’t drawing maps to suit them.