SANTA FE, N.M. – Accusations that New Mexico's Democratic-led Legislature unfairly diluted the vote of a politically conservative oil-producing region with its redistricting map went to trial on Wednesday.
The trial’s outcome is likely to have a big influence on which party represents a congressional swing district along the U.S. border with Mexico where partisan control has flipped back and forth three times in three elections.
New Mexico’s 2nd District is one of about a dozen that are in the spotlight nationally as Republicans campaign to hold onto their slim majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2024.
In its court challenge, the Republican Party alleges that the new congressional map flouts traditional standards of redistricting that held sway over the past three decades by dividing communities of common interest for political gain by Democrats.
Democratic lawmakers say the boundaries were vetted appropriately to ensure more competitive districts that reflect population shifts, with deference to Native American communities.
At trial on Wednesday, attorneys for the Republican Party said they’ll present evidence of egregious gerrymandering, outlined in text messages from a top-ranked Democratic legislator. They argued that Democrats cut Republican lawmakers out of deliberations as they divvied up a conservative stronghold in southeastern New Mexico among three congressional districts that all favor Democrats.
“The intent was to make sure Democrats were elected in those districts," testified James Townsend of Aztec, a retired oil pipeline supervisor and former state House minority leader who has served on the Republican National Committee.
An attorney for the Democratic-led Legislature argued that the 2nd District is still competitive and that Republicans won’t be able to prove the maps intentionally entrench Democratic politicians.
“In fact, the likelihood is that we’ll be looking at competitive contests in District 2 every two years,” said the attorney, Richard Olson.
Beyond New Mexico, Democrats got a potential boost for the 2024 congressional elections as courts in Alabama and Florida ruled recently that Republican-led legislatures had unfairly diluted the voting power of Black residents.
Alabama was headed to the first significant revamp of its congressional map in three decades after the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected the state’s bid to keep using a plan with a single majority-Black district. Legal challenges to congressional districts also are ongoing in Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Utah.
In New Mexico, U.S. Rep. Gabe Vasquez of Las Cruces edged out a first-term Republican in 2022 by roughly 1,300 votes after the district was reshaped by Democrats to include portions of Albuquerque, while divvying the deep-red southeastern corner of the state among three districts, all currently held by Democrats.
Former Congresswoman Yvette Herrell wants the GOP nomination for a rematch, launching her campaign alongside House Speaker Kevin McCarthy during a rally in Las Cruces in April.
The trial in Lovington is expected to last three days. The New Mexico Supreme Court gave the state district judge overseeing the case until Oct. 6 to come to his conclusions in an order that can be reviewed by the high court.
The judiciary is racing against the calendar to ensure any potential changes come into effect in time for the 2024 elections.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham isn't defending the map that she signed into law in 2021, arguing that she needs to channel legal resources to lawsuits that challenge her recent declaration of a public health emergency in response to gun violence. The Supreme Court declined a petition to delay the redistricting trial while dismissing Lujan Grisham and the lieutenant governor as defendants.
The governor cited challenges to her order that initially attempted to ban the carrying of firearms in New Mexico’s most populous metropolitan area. That provision was blocked in federal court and then scaled back by Lujan Grisham.
The New Mexico Supreme Court in an opinion issued last week explained its reasoning for allowing the gerrymandering challenge to be heard by a lower court. It said state courts have an obligation to protect the right to vote, which Chief Justice C. Shannon Bacon described as “the essential democratic mechanism” for securing other guarantees outlined in the state constitution.
To what extent state lawmakers will be able to testify has been among the issues attorneys have been feuding over, with some suggesting that certain discussions that occurred during the legislative session should be protected.
In New Mexico, Democrats won all three congressional contests in November. They control every statewide elected office, command majorities in the state House and Senate, and make up the five-member Supreme Court.