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Judge rules the redrawn congressional map stays in place – for now

Temporary election worker Joseph Banar, center, disinfects voting stations as a precaution against the coronavirus while a steady stream of voters participates in the first day of balloting in New Mexico, at the Santa Fe Convention Center on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, in Santa Fe, N.M. (Associated Press file)

The 2022 elections in New Mexico will move forward with the newly redrawn congressional map, but future elections could still see legal challenges from Republicans, a state judge ruled Tuesday.

In two brief letters on Tuesday afternoon, Ninth Judicial District Court Judge Fred Van Soelen said he will allow New Mexico to conduct the elections with the congressional map lawmakers redrew in December, but he refused a request by the governor and legislative leaders to drop the case entirely.

The Republican Party of New Mexico asked Van Soelen to set aside the map, and adopt one of two other maps drawn up by the Citizen Redistricting Committee for the 2022 election year.

“Doing so will minimize disruption to the electoral process and will allow time for the resolution of this litigation on the merits,” lawyers for the Republican Party wrote.

The new congressional map was drawn and approved by the Democrat-controlled Legislature and signed by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

The Republican Party is arguing that the new map “cracked” a Republican voting bloc in the southeastern part of the state, making it harder for a Republican candidate to win the Congressional District 2 seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“It is undisputed that the communities in Chaves, Eddy, Lea and Otero counties share common economic, social and cultural interests, based in part on the robust agricultural and oil and gas presence in the area,” the GOP wrote.

But Van Soelen denied the Republicans’ motion because there is only a small amount of time left when a new map could be rolled out for this year’s election. Ballots for the 2022 primary elections must be sent to members of the military and overseas voters on Saturday.

“To require a change this late in the game would bring a level of chaos to the process that is not in the public’s or the candidate’s interest,” Van Soelen wrote. “It is simply too late to make any changes for this primary election.”

Mandy Vigil, the elections director for the New Mexico secretary of state, said in a signed declaration that changing or redoing candidate filing day would risk “compromising the integrity and perceived integrity of the primary election,” and create big problems for state and local elections officials.

“Changing the candidate filing date after we have already completed candidate qualification will create considerable confusion and frustration among voters and election administrators and may contribute to the growing lack of trust voters have in democratic institutions,” Vigil wrote. “The election challenges faced during the pandemic will only be compounded with anger and frustration due to changing the election deadlines and rules after the fact.”

The governor and the Legislature called for the case’s dismissal, arguing the court lacks jurisdiction to hear the case and that the Republican Party of New Mexico did not make a claim that the court can grant relief.

But Van Soelen denied their motion to dismiss, and agreed that the Republican Party “makes a strong, well-developed case” that the redistricting legislation that’s been signed into law “is a partisan gerrymander created in an attempt to dilute Republican votes in congressional races in New Mexico.”

“The map at issue will be used not just for this election, but potentially for the next five elections, until the next redistricting process in approximately 10 years,” Van Soelen wrote. “Therefore, the case will continue, and the court will hear further argument at a later date on plaintiff’s complaint that could affect elections after 2022.”

Van Soelen had promised the parties he would issue legal conclusions by 4 p.m. Tuesday, but after he read the two sides’ complete arguments, “I find that I may have been too optimistic that I could draft a full findings and conclusions in this short period of time.”

He offered just this decision, instead, and promised to follow up with the rest.

For more stories from Source NM, visit sourcenm.com.