COMMENTARY: There are many reasons to be thinking about the upcoming Census. Making sure it is properly funded and that there are as few undercounts as possible are two. We should be thinking just as hard, or perhaps harder, about the legislative redistricting process that will follow it in 2021.
For the most part, mapmaking for political jurisdictions has been controlled by legislators since the first one one was established. It has been viewed a basic political right. Computerization of voter and demographic data has refined this process and made it exquisitely precise.
Unfair maps are a main reason millions of Americans feel disenfranchised. In most cases, they are.
There’s nothing virtuous about gerrymandering. The party in power selects the voters it wants away from the public eye. Members of that party weigh in with their desires for the ideal electorate they would like to represent. Some final adjustments are made and the map is adopted.
This nontransparent process is probably the most common example in our democracy of major parties putting their interests ahead of the common good. David Daley’s very readable book, Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count, tells the fascinating story of how the Republican Party employed voting records, demographics, computing heft and financial resources the redraw state legislative districts across the country. The resulting maps are the reason that that party now controls both the governorships and legislatures in 40 states.
Most scholars and good government activists agree that political boundaries should be set around communities of interest (a longstanding legal and demographic term used to define people who share the same values) to the extent possible — of course no communities are homogeneous. Natural features such as wide rivers and mountain ranges should also be considered.
Fortunately, the problems generated by gerrymandering are being addressed successfully across the nation. Twenty-one states use some form of nonpartisan or bipartisan redistricting commission to establish the maps for political jurisdictions. Efforts to do this are underway in many other states, including New Mexico.
As might be expected, no two states have adopted identical mechanisms for their independent redistricting bodies. In fact, these bodies have widely disparate structures and procedures:
• In Iowa, nonpartisan legislative staff draw the boundaries in what is almost always an uncontentious process.
• Eight states use bipartisan (only members of the major parties serve) commissions.
• Most states use “nonpartisan” commissions, though in most cases at least some members are appointed by major party leaders.
• Two states use advisory commissions; their legislatures retain final authority for boundary setting.
• The number of members of the various commissions range from three to 18.
• Some states preclude commission members from running for office for a period of time after their service concludes; most prohibit state employees and officials from serving on a commission.
The map that New Mexico’s Legislature adopted after the last Census in 2011 contains many districts that do not conform to fair community of interest principles. It is important that these inequities are addressed in 2021. There are three distinct actions that citizens across the state can take to advance this issue.
• First, citizens should urge their legislators to turn the redistricting process in 2021 over to a nonpartisan body whose members have geographic and demographic data interpretation skills and who don’t have political interests. Forward-thinking lawmakers should be encouraged to advance legislation that would accomplish this purpose. Doing so would advance their public image.
• Second, and perhaps more important, people who feel disenfranchised because of the configuration of their district should employ a variety of grassroots organizing methods to urge the Legislature to cure the inequity of their map in 2021. Incumbent legislators who plan to stand for reelection are attentive to their constituents’ concerns. Even if they aren’t willing to relinquish authority for boundary setting to an independent body, they will note voter concerns and take them into account even if the current unfair system stays in effect.
• Activists in unfairly drawn districts should consider running for office and make curing the inequity of their jurisdiction’s map a centerpiece of their campaign.
The time is now. 2020 is just around the corner. If New Mexicans aren’t attentive, they’ll become hostage for 10 more years to yet another set of maps that don’t reflect their communities’ best interests.
Jarratt Applewhite is a 50-year resident of New Mexico who has been active in a range of good government reform efforts. He is a current candidate for N.M. House District 50.