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New Mexico must change how it redistricts

Sen. Bill O'Neill
Santa Fe New Mexican
December 29, 2012

We just concluded a massive effort in our state, a nationwide ritual that comes at the end of every decade, where legislative boundaries are redrawn in accordance with population shifts reflected in our census. Opinions may vary as to the quality of our final House, Senate and congressional maps, judgments no doubt colored by respective partisan affiliation.

But the facts are that the governor vetoed every plan approved by the Legislature, except the uncontroversial plan redistricting the public education commission, and the whole process cost New Mexico taxpayers nearly $8 million ($5 million of which was for legal fees and costs.) Still, many constituents remain puzzled as to why they either lost their incumbent or gained an unknown person as their new legislator.

As an active participant in the above — both as a sitting legislator and as a member of the Interim Redistricting Committee that traveled throughout the state to hear from concerned citizens — I can unequivocally say our process of redistricting in New Mexico needs to change.

The final maps bear little resemblance to the different plans presented at various forums sponsored by the redistricting committee. Partisanship and incumbency drove these essential final decisions, and it was simply understood in both chambers that our finalized maps would, in all likelihood, be vetoed by Gov. Susana Martinez anyway. And then, there is the $5 million expense of the litigation, all of which the state ultimately paid. The meter on legal fees starts running in New Mexico long before it needs to; very early, at least in comparison to other states.

It does not have to be this way. Twenty-one other states have different versions of an “Independent Redistricting Commission,” a bipartisan body of appointed officials whose job it is to make the decision on what would be the fairest, most sensible political districts. While “politics” can never be removed from redistricting, these states have been able to formulate reasonable maps acceptable to both parties with minimal legal fees charged to the taxpayer.

Professionals (such as Research & Polling here in New Mexico) draw up the possible different maps, just as was done in 2012, but in states like Iowa, California and Wisconsin, an independent commission either makes recommendations or makes the actual decision themselves. The Legislature and the executive are essentially peripheral to the process. The result are maps that reflect common sense, and not the political preferences of the lawmakers voting on the maps.

On Jan. 15, I will be introducing legislation to establish such an independent commission here in New Mexico. I have been working closely on the drafting of this bill with nonpartisan groups such as the League Of Women Voters, Common Cause, and interested regular citizens. What we will present is an independent commission consisting of five individuals (not elected officials) selected from a pool of voters whose job it will be to make the best district maps for our state by relying heavily upon the appropriate legal principles, “communities of interest” and the “core of an existing district,” rather than the political leanings of an area or the political preferences of legislators.

New Mexico can do better. Our current system is a throwback to the old days, or at the very least is the opposite of transparent, citizen-involved government. We need to move forward and join the ranks of the 21 other states that have made that same decision to abandon their antiquated redistricting ways.

Bill O’Neill is the state senator-elect from Senate District 13.