Commentary

NM lawmakers shouldn’t haggle over your voting districts behind closed doors

Redistricting is more informed by the public this year, but predictable secrecy in the final stretch reveals a need for further reform

December 14, 2021 2:07 pm

The Roundhouse in Santa Fe, December 2021. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

Sunday afternoon, lawmakers hit pause on the redistricting special session — the part that we could see anyway. After tribal leaders strongly objected to what legislators were doing, the state’s elected officials closed the blinds and took the debate out of public view, hashing out state Senate voting districts in secret. 

Tribal leaders object to 11th-hour NM Senate redistricting map

House and Senate floor sessions were postponed until who knew when. Legislative committees stopped debating the merits of bills. The whole thing ground to a halt. Source NM reporters started hearing that there’s disagreement and uncertainty among the state’s Democrats, who hold a majority in both chambers. 

But voters have a right to know about that conversation — whether legislators are putting the interests of the people they represent ahead of the ease of their re-election. Or, said another way, whether they’re really doing the job instead of just making sure it looks like they are.

Politicians are supposed to be public servants. You should know about whether you’re being served, about what’s really happening and how the people you put in power are negotiating talks around race and redistricting. It could change your mind about how you cast your vote next time around. 

State officials have a whole 10 years to make a fairer and better redistricting process. The deadline doesn’t pop up out of the blue. It always goes down once a decade after each census count: Politicians redraw the lines around the state’s voting districts, and it sets the stage for the coming decade. 

On a local level across the U.S., redrawing those voting districts unfairly swelled the voting power of white populations. 

People often phrase this along the lines of: “disproportionately impacted POC communities,” or “disenfranchised minorities” or “diluted Brown and Black voting strength.” But there’s passivity in those phrases and a focus on the people who are harmed, not the people who are making the rules and then benefiting from them.

It’s racism. When we talk about systemic racism, in politics, redistricting can either be seen as the place where it starts or the means by which it’s perpetuated — or both. 

New Mexico was smart to take a shot at changing the system, and for the first time ever, an independent panel held public sessions all over the state for months to hear from people about what they needed the new voting districts to look like. They got more than 2,000 comments, we heard from experts.

Congressional maps got the most public input, CRC member says

In that time, a tribal coalition met and found consensus among 23 tribes and pueblos, carefully working out an agreement that was heralded as historic. 

Based on what everyone said, the panel drew up some maps for new voting districts — for Congress, the Legislature and the Public Education Commission — and then sent them to lawmakers a full month before the special session started.

We’d been following that early process. Heading into the session that started Monday, Dec. 6, a question came up in our news meeting: After all of that work, all of that listening and compromise and care, could legislators crumple up those careful maps, toss them in the circular file, take ballpoint pen to napkin and sketch out new ones? 

Yeah. They totally can. 

People were worried about that before the session started.

The state Legislature is not obligated to do anything more than consider the maps the Citizens Redistricting Committee presented. 

New redistricting group created slate of fair maps, but will lawmakers listen?

On Sunday, tribal leaders expressed frustration before everything started happening in secret, saying that an hour before a committee hearing, Sen. Mimi Stewart tossed their way a new map for the state’s Senate districts. (Yes, the state’s lawmakers redraw their own districts. That’s part of why the process is always so ready to jump the rails.) 

Stewart said it was mostly based on the consensus map the tribal coalition drew up. But — and I can vouch for this — it takes a little time to confirm that. We keep hearing lawmakers in committee say things like “this map is whatever percent the same as the one the Citizens Redistricting Committee came up with.” Then it takes hours sometimes to see exactly what’s changed, not only with the boundaries but with the demographics of each district. That much we can be sure of, because it took the redistricting committee and the tribal coalition months to come up with their maps.

State House reps approve their new voting districts on a near party-line vote

So were the state’s tribal leaders just supposed to take lawmakers’ word for it and chill? Whoever made Sunday’s plan and thought it was going to play out like that seriously miscalculated.

Here’s what is working about the revamped redistricting process: Lots of people are paying attention. The public, the constituents, are engaged and watching. 

But legislators are still able to use their own rules — and the exceptions to those rules — to hold the real conversation somewhere we can’t see it. 

Under the Open Meetings Act, governmental bodies are not supposed to be able to shut down a public meeting and start talking in secret when the debate gets too hot. There is an exception to that rule, and it’s — you guessed it — the state’s Legislature. 

We don’t really know what they’ve been talking about this last day-and-a-half, the sticking points, the deal-making, who might be putting personal gain ahead of what’s right for the state. Maybe we’ll hear some of it afterward. I hope so. 

As we weigh further reforms to the redistricting process, this consideration has to be part of what happens next: if we want a government that’s by and for the people, politicians shouldn’t be able to shut the door when the real negotiating begins. 

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Marisa Demarco
Marisa Demarco

Marisa Demarco is an Albuquerque-based journalist and lifelong New Mexican whose work has won national and regional awards. She's spent almost two decades as a reporter, producer and newsroom leader, co-founding the New Mexico Compass, and editing and writing for the Weekly Alibi, the Albuquerque Tribune and UNM's Daily Lobo. She began a career in radio full-time at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health and criminal legal reform for much of the last seven years. During the pandemic, she was also the executive producer for “Your NM Gov” and “No More Normal,” shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice.

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