Tuesday, February 21, 2012
District Judge Releases New State House Redistricting Maps for Supreme Court Consideration
By Sterling Fluharty, Owner of Southwest Political Services, www.swpsnm.com
District Judge James Hall released two “preliminary” redistricting maps for the State House last night at 8:00pm. These maps were drafted at the request of the New Mexico Supreme Court. They are now available on the website of the New Mexico legislature.
Prior to the Supreme Court's involvement, Judge Hall had adopted Executive Alternative Plan 3, which, according to the Supreme Court, had following features: 1) “the lowest population deviation between districts,” 2) “it adhered to the Voting Rights Act,” 3) it incorporated the “Multi-Tribal/Navajo Nation plan,” 4) “it reasonably satisfied secondary reapportionment policies,” and 5) it decided partisan considerations were secondary. Democrats appealed this map, which had been favored by the Governor, to the State Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court ordered Judge Hall to follow New Mexico's guidelines for redistricting: 1) “Maintaining low population deviations from equal districts using data from the most recent U.S. Census,” 2) “Comporting with the Voting Rights Act and federal constitutional standards,” 3) “For purposes of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, only eligible voters affect a group's opportunity to elect candidates,” 4) single-member districts, 5) contiguous and compact districts, 6) respecting political and geographic boundaries, including neighborhoods, 7) “Preserving clear communities of interest” that share “common social, economic, and cultural interests,” 8) “Preserving cores of existing districts,” 9) minimizing contests between incumbents, and 10) “a judge should not select a plan that seeks partisan advantage,” so “partisan bias” needs to be considered.
The Supreme Court shared its conclusions with Judge Hall: 1) “precise population equivalence" cannot be the highest priority, 2) Executive Alternative Plan 3 “did not undergo the same scrutiny for partisan bias that the majority of plans previously considered had undergone,” 3) incumbent pairings “contributed to the partisan performance changes in the plan,” 4) House District 63 in and around Clovis needs to remain an “effective majority-minority district,” 5) include the Multi-Tribal/Navajo Nation plan without any change, 6) the regions selected for the three pairings were appropriate, but it needs to be partisan neutral, 7) the District Court was not obligated to adopt the State House map in House Bill 39, and 8) the Governor was rightly allowed to submit redistricting plans.
The Supreme Court sent the case back to Judge Hall and provided “Remanding Instructions”: 1) use an expert, 2) parties should not submit additional evidence, 3) “consider historically significant state policies,” 4) as allowed or justified by New Mexico guidelines, use “greater population deviations,” 5) parties may submit briefs and reintroduce previous maps, 6) Deming, Silver City, and Las Vegas should be kept whole in districts by using greater population deviations, 7) “devise a plan that is partisan-neutral and fair to both sides,” 8) any Democrat-Republican consolidation “should result in a district that provides an equal opportunity to either party” or “some other action may be taken to mitigate any severe and unjustified partisan performance swing,” 9) District 63 must become an “effective, citizen, majority-minority district as that term is commonly understood in Voting Rights Act litigation, and as it has been represented, at least in effect, for the past three decades,” and 10) finish by February 27.
The new maps from Judge Hall succeed at meeting most of the requirements set out by the Supreme Court. Brian Sanderoff was employed as an expert. Apparently parties did not submit additional evidence and state policies were reviewed. Population deviation increased modestly, particularly outside of tribal areas, and stayed within the accepted overall range of plus or minus five percent. Deming, Las Vegas, Mountainair, and Tijeras were unified. The extent to which geographic boundaries like the Rio Grande were respected appears to have not changed. Single-member contiguous districts were preserved. District compactness and core retention both increased slightly. The Multi-Tribal/Navajo Nation plan was preserved. The incumbent pairings stayed at three and in Central Albuquerque it was partisan neutral. And the maps were submitted a week before they were due.
The new maps from Judge Hall continue to split a few communities of interest in Albuquerque, such as the International District, neighborhood associations like Academy Acres North and Taylor Ranch, and historic neighborhoods like Huning Highland. Silver City remained split between districts. The Supreme Court may consider whether these and other examples constitute “clear communities of interest.”
Judge Hall's latest maps lack any calculation or mention of the voting-eligible population. The Supreme Court explained that when determining whether a map fulfilled the conditions of the Voting Rights Act, “the question is whether the minority group has a citizen voting-age majority in the district." This was a general statement, but the Supreme Court also specified that District 63 must become an “effective, citizen, majority-minority district as that term is commonly understood in Voting Rights Act litigation, and as it has been represented, at least in effect, for the past three decades.” Before redistricting, the voting-age population in District 63 was 54.6% Hispanic. The executive map approved by Judge Hall reduced the voting-age population in the district to 54.0% Hispanic. According to census data on citizenship status for the counties and census tracts that coincide with the precincts in District 63, the new maps create a district with a voting-age population of 17,973, of which 10,038 (55.9%) were Hispanic, and a voting-eligible population of 15,865, of which 8,032 (50.6%) were Hispanic. The Supreme Court may not consider this slight majority “effective.”
It remains uncertain whether the Supreme Court will consider the new maps from Judge Hall “partisan-neutral and fair to both sides.” The political performance for both of the new maps is 38 Democratic and 32 Republican districts. These numbers happen to coincide with the political performance for the districts as they are currently drawn. But the political performance model used by Judge Hall determined statewide voting over the last decade was 53% Democratic and 47% Republican. If the Supreme Court decides that proportional representation is the best way to remove partisan bias, then they may prefer a State House map that contains 37 Democratic and 33 Republican districts. But this scenario may only happen if the Supreme Court believes that increasing the number of Democratic districts from 36 in the executive map to 38 in the new Judge Hall maps meets their definition of a “severe and unjustified partisan performance swing.”