SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Accusations that New Mexico’s Democratic-led Legislature unfairly diluted the vote of a politically conservative oil-producing region with its redistricting map are heading to trial on Wednesday, despite a last-minute flurry of motions that included an effort by the governor’s attorneys to delay the proceedings.
The 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.
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. 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 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.
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, dividing communities of common interest for political gain by Democrats.
Democratic lawmakers say new congressional boundaries were vetted appropriately through the political process to ensure more competitive districts that reflect population shifts, with deference to Native American communities.
The judiciary is racing against the calendar to ensure any potential changes come into effect in time for the 2024 elections.
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.
The Supreme Court did reject a late effort by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s attorneys to have the trial delayed. The court has yet to decide on another petition that challenges an earlier denial by the state district judge to dismiss as defendants the governor and lieutenant governor. The court was expected to make a decision on that request Wednesday.
Attorneys for Lujan Grisham argued in their filing that the three-day, in-person redistricting trial will “significantly diminish their ability to defend the governor in a multitude of pending emergency lawsuits challenging her recent declarations of public health emergency.”
The governor’s recent attempt to ban the carrying of firearms in New Mexico’s most populous metropolitan area through her public health emergency declaration fueled a public backlash and put members of her own party on the defensive — including Vasquez, who said solutions to gun violence would have to be constitutional and protect the Second Amendment.
Curbing government overreach and protecting constitutional rights have been part of Herrell’s past campaigns and are again this time around, with the gun debate likely to energize some voters in the district.
The New Mexico Supreme Court in an opinion issued last week explained its reasoning for allowing the gerrymandering challenge to be heard by the 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.
The court outlined a three-prong test that the state court must consider, one of which is whether the intent of drawing the boundaries was to entrench the political party in power by diluting votes of people who support the rival party.
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 had during the legislative session should be protected.