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Advisory panel endorses redistricting maps for New Mexico

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, seen at a July 29 news conference, holds veto authority in the process. It has been 30 years since Democrats controlled both the governor’s office and Legislature during redistricting. (Morgan Lee/Associated Press file )

SANTA FE – An advisory panel to the Legislature on political redistricting on Wednesday advanced three proposals for overhauling district boundaries in New Mexico’s Democrat-dominated House of Representatives, with special deference to Native American communities.

Two of the endorsed redistricting maps follow competing recommendations from Indigenous nations and tribes in northwestern New Mexico, a celebrated cradle of ancient civilization where a recent decline in population threatens to disrupt and dilute majority-Native American voting districts.

A coalition including 19 Native American pueblo communities and the Jicarilla Apache Nation painstakingly advanced a plan for the northwest region that emphasizes each tribe’s right to self-determination. Breaking with that emphasis, redistricting negotiators for the Navajo Nation have advanced a plan that focused on retaining Native American majorities of about 65% or more in six House districts.

Those Native American plans each won endorsement by the state’s Citizens Redistricting Committee, alongside a map from the left-leaning Center for Civic Policy that reduces the number of state House districts in an area of Albuquerque with predominantly white, non-Hispanic residents.

In the redistricting process, New Mexico presents unusual challenges in efforts to comply with the U.S. Voting Rights Act to preserve communities of interest and give minority voters a fair shot to elect candidates of their choice. Nearly 48% of state residents claim Hispanic ancestry – the highest portion in the nation – and more than 12% identify themselves as Indigenous by race or by combined ancestry.

“I do believe that we have an opportunity to do something with the House map that has not been possible for decades, if ever,” said redistricting adviser and attorney Lisa Curtis, a Democrat who voted for all three maps that won endorsements.

Ryan Cangiolosi, a former chairman of the state Republican Party, voted against the committee endorsements.

He said the map from the Center for Civic Policy in particular had partisan objectives and was meant to make way for a Democratic super-majority in the House over the coming decade. The recently announced retirement of Democratic state Rep. Debbie Armstrong of Albuquerque next year makes way for that map with less friction from incumbents.

Cangiolosi urged the advisory committee to advance other map concepts developed by a consultant – without an analysis of partisan outcomes that comes later in the process.

The recommendations of the Citizens Redistricting Committee are a nonbinding reference point for the Legislature as it enters the once-a-decade process of drawing new political boundaries.

Republicans won a majority in the state House in the 2014 election for the first time in 60 years, but were relegated again to minority status in 2016. Democrats now hold a 45-24 seat advantage, with one unaffiliated representative.

Several states, including New Mexico and Indiana, are using citizen advisory boards to temper political inclinations without taking redistricting powers away from state lawmakers. Judges might wind up using the advisory maps to resolve redistricting lawsuits.

New Mexico’s Democratic-led Legislature plans to convene in December to redraw the boundaries for the state’s three congressional districts, 112 legislative seats and a commission that oversees public charter schools.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham holds veto authority in the process. It has been 30 years since Democrats controlled both the governor’s office and Legislature during redistricting.

Proposed changes to a congressional swing district in southern New Mexico are under special scrutiny.