Inside the Capitol

Monday, October 17, 2011

10-19 Redistricting always a cutthroat process

101911 cutthroat

SANTA FE – Redistricting of governmental bodies is the most cutthroat exercise in the world of politics. New Mexico is not unique. The process takes place in every state at all levels of government. At stake are the political fortunes of every elected official and political party.
Regardless of the pronouncements of Gov. Susana Martinez and Democratic legislative leaders that voters should be able to choose their representatives rather than representatives choosing their voters, everyone involved in the process is looking for maximum advantage.
So what is the fairest way to conduct the process? Over half the states are using an independent redistricting commission. I may have been hanging out on the wrong planet the past decade but I haven't heard any legislative discussion of such a commission in New Mexico.
The idea is great but New Mexico really hasn't lost much by not investigating the possibilities already. All states with an IRC are having their problems. Some started operations following the 2000 census or earlier. Here's a look at what has been happening.
Arizona and California have the most independent commissions. Both completely exclude elected officials from involvement in drawing district lines.
Arizona does allow the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate to select a commission member from a list presented by a group called the state Commission on Appellate Court Appointments. Those four appointees then select a chair from a list of independents.
Other state's have independent commissions of equal numbers of legislators from each party or a group of legislators that acts if the legislature fails to agree. And some commissions are merely advisory. Several of the most independent commissions are from Western states.
But in all cases, courts are the final arbitrator. And some group always can find a way to claim to be disadvantaged. In New Mexico, for instance, the state GOP complains that not enough districts are competitive. Since they are in the minority in the Legislature and in our congressional delegation, they need as many competitive districts as possible in order to have a shot at gaining a majority.
In Arizona, where Republicans dominate, the situation is reversed. The Arizona GOP contends that the independent commission has made too many districts competitive, thereby making it possible for Democrats to win more seats in the Legislature and in the Arizona congressional delegation.
Why are Arizona and California redistricting commissions the most independent? Both are states where voters can put items on the ballot for a public referendum.
The story is that when New Mexico was writing its constitution, Congress was worried about us "making laws in the street." So it wanted us to have a completely representative government, hoping our legislators would be more discerning than the general populace.
It is difficult to imagine the New Mexico Legislature ceding its redistricting power to the people. But it may be a little unusual that the Republican Party hasn't tried.
The history of redistricting movements in states without an initiative and referendum process suggests it is the minority party that makes the effort for independent redistricting commissions.
But why bother with independent commissions? Courts ultimately have the final say. So, if courts make the final decision, can't someone figure a legal way for them to make the initial decision?
In New Mexico judges have to run for their office in the next election after their initial appointment. That means they have to declare as a Republican or a Democrat. If a redistricting panel could be composed of an equal number of judges, or retired judges, from each party, what could be fairer than that?
The answer likely relates to the separation of powers. Everyone always has a right to appeal any governmental decision. So although the courts can have the final say, they can't be involved before that.

Wouldn't you know that lawyers could figure another way to make a buck?


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