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SANTA FE — Rural New Mexico and part of the city of Albuquerque are on the political chopping block as lawmakers consider how to redraw boundaries of legislative districts to adjust for population changes during the past decade.
Eastern and north-central portions of the state are at risk of losing representation in the Legislature because the region’s growth since 2000 has lagged behind statewide population increases. The same is true for central sections of Albuquerque.
But the fast-growing metropolitan area of Albuquerque west of the Rio Grande is a winner in redistricting: It’s almost certain to gain seats in the House and Senate.
That’s the message to lawmakers from the Legislature’s redistricting consultant, Brian Sanderoff, who runs a research and polling company in Albuquerque.
“It would be impossible mathematically for new representation to not occur on the west side. The trick is this: If new seats are going to emerge on the west side other seats must be consolidated,” Sanderoff told senators on Wednesday as he outlined the population trends that will drive redistricting decisions.
The goal of redistricting is to equalize the populations of districts as much as possible. That was required under the legal doctrine of one person, one vote, to ensure that each resident’s vote is worth the same.
To deal with slow-growing areas, lawmakers have limited options. Existing seats can be retained by expanding their boundaries to add precincts and population. Eastern New Mexico districts, for example, could be expanded to the west. That approach was taken a decade ago in Senate redistricting to ensure no loss of representation.
Lawmakers also can consolidate two districts into one, and shift one of those seats to a fast-growing part of the state, such as Albuquerque’s west side. Doing that, however, usually means forcing two incumbents to run against each other in the next election — a prospect that no legislator relishes.
“What happens in eastern New Mexico will impact what happens on the west side of Albuquerque,” said Sanderoff.
There’s enough population in western portions of Albuquerque to accommodate three new House seats and almost two Senate districts.
During the past decade, 40 percent of the population growth statewide occurred in a 20-mile narrow strip on the west side of Albuquerque, including the city of Rio Rancho. Much of that area tilts Republican.
“To allow two brand new seats to emerge on the west side means the Legislature has a very tough decision to make about consolidating two seats somewhere in the state of New Mexico,” said Sanderoff.
The total number of districts won’t change in redistricting: 70 in the House and 42 in the Senate. But adjusting their boundaries can alter the political influence in regions of the state and change the balance of powers for the political parties.
Currently, 23 Senate seats are leaning or strongly in favor of Democrats and 19 tilt toward Republicans, based on their voting performance in recent elections, according to calculations by Sanderoff’s firm. Democrats hold a 25-17 majority in the Senate.
In the House, 38 districts favor Democrats and Republicans have the advantage in 31 districts. One district is evenly split between the two parties in voting performance. Democrats have a 36-33 majority in the House, and there is one independent.
“Redistricting is a very difficult task because judgment calls will have to be made as to where to consolidate districts,” Sanderoff told legislators Tuesday when they convened in a special session.
Editor’s note: Barry Massey has covered state government and politics in New Mexico for The Associated Press since 1993.