Redistricting to draw new Congressional lines

Dianne Stallings
Ruidoso News
August 24, 2010

Mandated by the U.S. Census every 10 years

Every 10 years, based on new national census data, counties, legislative and congressional districts are redrawn to maintain population balance and reflect growth that might trigger the need for more elected representatives.

Officials in the Lincoln County Clerk's office with the help of New Mexico State Sen. Rod Adair (R-Roswell), who also heads New Mexico Demographic Research, drafted some new precinct lines, eliminated now prohibited subprecincts and added some new voting precincts.

The more precincts, the more flexibility in drawing county commission, state legislative and national congressional district lines, County Clerk Rhonda Burrows told county commissioners Tuesday.

Adair said he handled the county's 2001 redistricting. The only reason for the census is for reapportionment to guarantee equal representation in the U.S House of Representatives, he said. But subsequent court decisions extended the requirement down to all elected levels, such as school boards and village councils, although some exceptions are allowed for smaller populations.

Lincoln County showed a population of a little more than 19,000 in the last census. But he used an example of a county with 25,000 people, in which no district could have fewer that 4,750 residents and no more than 5.250.

The new 2010 Census began in April. Although final numbers may not be available until May 2011, preliminary work shows New Mexico did not gain a Congressional seat, Adair said. The state is not growing at the rate of the rest of the country, he said.

The population shift in the state is toward the Rio Grande Valley corridor with Belen, Rio Rancho, Santa Fe and Albuquerque in the north, Las Cruces in the south. Population is bleeding from Clayton, Tucumcari and Clovis, Adair said. The corridor will gain three to four seats in the state House and two Senate seats at the expense of the east side of the state, he said.

As for Lincoln County, the population concentration increased in the extreme south covering Ruidoso, Alto and Ruidoso Downs, he said.

"In 2000, there were only 13 precincts and you couldn't redistrict without creating separate polling places or separate subsections," he said. "Most of the precincts remained whole for the Congressional redistricting. You could carve out part for the county commission or school as subprecincts. That's what led to Tinnie, San Patricio and Capitan being subprecincts."

But for the new map in 2011, Burrows said the county will increase to 21 precincts to give more flexibility to meet the population goals and move away from subprecincts when final commission district, legislative and congressional lines are approved.

"Some precincts don't have very many people," Adair said. "It's to give you greater building blocks to meet the goal."

The state Legislature probably will call a special September session in 2011 to handle adoption of new lines for state representation, he said.

When drawing lines, the law also states that ethnic minorities must be given an opportunity to elect someone of their choosing, Adair said.

Burrows said under the precinct plan already put together, precinct 6 will be divided, changing the edges of precincts 6 and precinct 21. The new precinct 8 was drawn with only 10 voters.

"I hope to make precincts more square and blocky," she said. "I'm attempting to change to that. When people see little fingers going out here and there, they say it's gerrymandering. But that's not necessarily true. They were simply trying years ago to pick up enough population. Some (configurations) can be very crazy."

Preliminary estimates indicate new census numbers in Lincoln County will have zero impact on redistricting at higher levels, but will affect government distribution of money for projects and programs. "You'll know in April 2011," Burrows said, along with the updated demographics of the county, such as education and income levels by precinct.

Adair said the census counts everyone in the county at the time, whether or not they are legal residents of the county, state or the United States.

Commissioner Eileen Sedillo said with more illegal immigrants migrating to Ruidoso, that could mean a big impact on the population. Adair said some people have lived in the area 50 years and never became citizens.

He reminded commissioners that the census counts people, not registered voters, a common misconception.

Adair said every sixth person received a long-form questionnaire asking for more than the basic information for the census.

In New Mexico's 33 counties, some commissioners take an active role in redistricting, but in most, the job is handled by the county clerk. A final decision occurs after a few public hearings and official adoption by the commission.

Former county clerk Martha Proctor, now a magistrate judge in Carrizozo, urged commissioners to do as much of the work in-house as possible to keep down the cost, as she did in 2001.

Ranches of Sonterra resident Tony Davis asked if the most objective approach might be a computer program or to turn to "academics" for more unbiased input.

Burrows said the new map hanging on the wall next to the commission podium was created by Research and Polling, which has a statewide contract and is based in Albuquerque. Precincts were drawn by June, because the U.S. Census Bureau required it

"We go more with geographical lines than counties do with flat land," Burrows said. "Lincoln County is a huge challenge. It's not flat. We follow a creek or road. But in some cases, I tried to unite areas such as Eagle Creek, where one side of the road was in one precinct and the other side had to drive miles to another polling place in another precinct. So I tried not to use roads and not to divide communities."

She also kept in mind bringing together areas with common interests, Burrows said. She tried to adjust to keep all of the settlement of Nogal together, but failed and it remains split, she said.

In precincts, such as 8, with small populations, mail ballots could be used to avoid the expense of setting up a separate polling place, Burrows said.