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What redistricting means for New Mexico

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On November 27 the NM Supreme Court upheld District Court Judge Fred Van Soelen’s ruling on the shape of the US Congressional map for the state, drawn by the Democratic-controlled legislature and challenged by the Republican Party.  Boundary lines will remain in place.  Judge Van Soelen is a Republican from Clovis, appointed to the Ninth District Court in Clovis by a Republican Governor—Susana Martinez.  The NM Supreme Court is composed entirely of Democrats.  It is noteworthy in these hyper-partisan times that Van Soelen’s ruling accepted a Democratic Party-drawn map; a ruling, he must have understood, would be backed up on appeal by the Supreme Court.

Undertaken by state legislatures every ten years, redistricting has a long history of mischiefA rich vocabulary has evolved to describe unfair games legislators often play with this power, and standards exist to place guardrails against some of the more egregious outcomes. The term gerrymandering, coined in 1812, refers to instances in which a legislature makes unfair changes to the boundaries of a political map.

One rule of thumb is that new boundaries should not severely dilute the voting power of communities of interest–like-minded people such as ethnic groups, cultures, or racial groups.  Splitting such a group into districts in each of which that group is in a minority is known as cracking.   Cracking reduces the group’s political clout.  It is unfair, and is frowned upon legally.  Similarly, drawing lines to cram a community of interest into as few districts as possible is called packing.  it, too, is a no-no.  Nor should redistricting reverse longstanding balances of power between Democrats and Republicans—but this is permitted when, in order to maintain equal populations in each district, partisan shifts in the statewide populations require a reversal.

In the case at hand, boundary changes shifted the geography of longstanding ethnic, ideological, and partisan patterns of voting so as to make likely, but not assure, Democratic chances of winning CD2, while preserving strong prospects Democrats would hold CD1 and CD3.  This is not in itself illegal, but to get there, the legislature cracked two large communities of interest, a redistricting no-no.

For the past four decades, conservative East Side Republicans dominated CD2, located roughly in the southern half of the state.  Republicans from the East Side held the seat from 1980-2008.  Democrats held CD1 and CD3.  This was a fair distribution, roughly reflecting the relative voting strength of conservatives and liberals and Ds and Rs throughout the state.  In 2008, a Democrat, Harry Teague, was elected to CD2 for two years.  But he was a conservative oilman from Hobbs, so conservatives in CD2 maintained their normal clout in Congress.  Only in the national backlash against Trump in 2018 was the spell broken with the election of Xochitl Torres Small, a liberal Democrat from Las Cruces.  Predictably, she was ousted by a conservative Republican, Yvette Harrell, after only one term, in 2020, returning the district to its norm. 

But in 2022 CD 2 was redrawn by a Democratic legislature, shifting Democrats into it while splitting up the East Side into all three congressional districts.  Roswell, Artesia, Hobbs, Clovis, and Portales—major cultural citadels of the conservative East Side—were tossed into the most liberal district, CD3, which includes Gallup, Taos, Española, Santa Fe, Las Vegas, and various Native American Tribes.  It is difficult to image any congressperson being able faithfully to represent the interests of, say, oil drillers in Hobbs as well as environmental activists in Santa Fe, or feminists in Taos and evangelical churchgoers in Artesia, to name just two issues of congressional concern.  Cultural, partisan, and ideological incompatibilities exist between the East Side and the North, and there is a history of mutual distrust.

Lincoln, Otero, Eddy, De Baca, Chaves, Lea, Roosevelt, and Curry counties—now split into 3 congressional districts–share deep ties of geography, history, kinship, culture, commerce, agriculture, ideology, and partisanship. They form as much a community of interests as, say, legacy Hispanics in Mora, San Miguel, Taos, Colfax, Santa Fe, and Rio Arriba counties; or, for that matter, black citizens in Southern Alabama.  Politically, these two sets of counties are mirror opposites of each other.  In 2020, for example, Trump received 78% of the vote in these conservative counties; the Northern counties gave Trump 25% of their votes.  The eight Southern counties usually account for about 13%-14% of the statewide vote.  The Hispanic counties provide about 14-15% of the vote.  In statewide races they usually cancel out each other’s vote.  The eight counties have strong ties to other counties in the south, including Socorro, Sierra, Luna, Hidalgo.  No statewide demographic changes in the past ten years required this split. But the legislature in 2022 shifted over 500,000 residents into a different district; population dynamics required only 23,000.

The legislature also cracked CD1.  In relegating parts of the East Side to CD3, CD2 needed to make up the missing votes somewhere.  Legislators found them in the heavily Hispanic and solidly Democratic South Valley of Albuquerque.  These were moved into CD2, but at the cost of diluting the Hispanic vote in CD1.  This has the effect of improving an Anglo’s chances of winning a primary election in CD1 since a significant hunk of Hispanic voters have been taken out of the district.   Democratic Rep. Miguel Garcia, most of whose district was moved into CD2, complained bitterly to fellow Democrats about splitting up the iconic South Valley, to no avail.

In cracking CD2 and South Valley Hispanics, the intent is clear.  In reversing the previous advantage Republicans held in voter registration, now 53%-47% in the D favor, the map significantly improves Democratic chances in CD2.  Gabe Vasquez almost certainly would not have won the district under the old map.  At the same time the new map retains a strong likelihood the Ds will hold CD1, and, probably, CD3.  The new map suggests a Hispanic is likely to win a Democratic primary in CD2, and, with so much of the conservative East side removed, will probably win the seat; an Anglo from Albuquerque is likely to win the Democratic primary in CD1 and take the seat in the general election.  CD3, while less Democratic than before, still holds a strong partisan tilt–about 53.8%-46.2% Ds over Rs.  The component groups–Apache and Navajo tribes, most of the Pueblos, New Mexican and Mexican Hispanics, conservative East-siders and Anglo liberals, rich and poor, highly educated and poorly trained–seldom communicate with each other, and it would be hard to find a lot of issues before Congress that this un-community could get solidly behind.

Why would a Republican judge from Clovis accept this egregious insult to the people and history of a major piece of Southern NM, while at the same time weakening Hispanic representation in CD1 and creating a hodge-podge of unrelated or conflictive interests, in CD3?   The judge readily acknowledged the egregious cracking of the East Side, the mischief of finding Hispanic votes in the South Valley to improve Democratic chances in CD2, and the lack of any compelling reason to shift likely electoral outcomes in favor of Democrats in CD2.  But, he argued, despite the legislature’s intent to entrench Democrats in CD2 (his words), it had not succeeded in doing so:  Vasquez barely beat his opponent last year so the obvious gerrymandering had not reached the legalistic threshold of, egregious entrenchment.  In other words, you can screw up two and a half congressional districts with cracking, ethnic, and partisan gerrymandering (my words), but if you can’t immediately prove the new map will result in entrenchment of one party in CD2, it will pass a legalistic test, if not the test of justice.  Go figger. (Editors Note: Jose Garcia is a former Secretary of Higher Education for the State of New Mexico)

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