Last week the state Supreme Court sent a lawsuit filed by Republicans seeking to overturn the new map back to District Court, while also giving Judge Van Soelen guidance on what he should consider in making his decision.
The order instructs that “a reasonable degree” of partisan gerrymandering is permissible, so long as it’s not “egregious.” The order notes the “inherently political nature” of redistricting.
Van Soelen is instructed to compare voter registration data on party affiliation under the old map and the new one.
And, he is instructed to go by the three-part test laid out by Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagen in a 2019 dissenting opinion. The first two tests are that the maps were intended to strengthen one party by diluting votes from its opponents and succeeded in that goal. The third test is if there is a legitimate, non-partisan explanation for the changes.
None of which would seem to be very helpful for Judge Van Soelen; assuming he lacks the ability to look into the hearts and minds of others.
Republicans look at the new map, which breaks up their traditional stronghold in the southeastern part of the state, and argue that the partisan intent is obvious. Democrats argue that their intent was to bring more Hispanic representation into the district, which they have done.
Both could be true. But it is important to remember how the process played out. Democrats in the state Senate tossed out all of the proposed maps submitted by an independent redistricting commission, and replaced them with a map that diluted the power of southeast New Mexico in a way that none of the other maps considered.
This was the first time in 30 years that Democrats had control of the redistricting process. The last two times, Republican governors were in office. Both of those times the process broke down, and final maps were drawn by the courts. This time Democrats took advantage of that power.
And that may have made the difference in a close race won by Democrat Gabriel Vasquez in 2022.
Republicans who had feared that their case would be tossed out by the state Supreme Court see last week’s ruling as a victory. But Hannah Burling, of the League of Women Voters and the group Fair Districts for New Mexico, notes that the guidance Van Soelen will rely on was authored by one of the Supreme Court’s most progressive justices.
And, she sees the ruling as a victory in the larger effort to end partisan gerrymandering throughout the nation.
In a ruling last month that rejected the notion that state legislatures had power over all aspects of elections, the U.S. Supreme Court ensured state courts would be the ultimate arbiters on the issue of partisan gerrymandering.
That leaves it up to Judge Van Soelen. His decision will determine not only the makeup of the district until the next Census, but also the rules for redistricting in New Mexico moving forward.
Walter Rubel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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