Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Political map trial ends with more evidence still on the way

LOVINGTON — The trial over New Mexico’s redrawn congressional map ended Thursday, but the case continues with a state district court judge still waiting for more evidence to be handed over by the state’s Legislature as he decides whether the new map is constitutional.

In his closing argument for the Republican Party of New Mexico, attorney Misha Tseytlin asked Ninth Judicial District Court Judge Fred Van Soelen to rule that the new map is an “egregious partisan gerrymander” and to strike it down as unconstitutional.

In her closing argument on behalf of the Legislature, attorney Sara Sanchez warned the judge against “stepping into the political fray.”

“If we’re going to strike down a map as unconstitutional, we better be really sure,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez said the new map is not an egregious partisan gerrymander because New Mexico’s second congressional district remains a highly competitive, toss-up district even after the map was redrawn.

Over the weekend and into next Tuesday, Judge Van Soelen anticipates the Legislature will hand over more text messages and emails between lawmakers and members of the public.

At the very end of the day on Thursday, Tseytlin said messages from a congressional staffer turned over by the defense show intent to create a gerrymander.

“You’ll see in our later submissions more evidence of the same character: clear, obvious, undisputed plan of creating a balance of near perfect gerrymander,” Tseytlin told the judge.

Van Soelen has until Friday, Oct. 6 to make a decision.

Rep. James Townsend (R-Artesia) testifies in court on Sept. 27, 2023. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

Reshaping New Mexico’s political landscape

Three Republican lawmakers testified that no one from their party was included in the redistricting process, but they did participate in committee hearings and floor debates during the 2021 special session.

Rep. James Townsend (R-Artesia) testified that no Republicans were involved in the changes made to the maps between the “Concept H” version recommended by the Citizens Redistricting Commission and what ended up passed into law as Senate Bill 1.

Sen. William Sharer (R-Farmington) testified that in early December 2021 he was denied entry into a closed-door meeting of Democratic lawmakers and Native leaders about the new map.

However, Sharer and Sen. David Gallegos (R-Eunice) separately testified that there were no procedural violations in the process of the new map going through the Legislature.

“It was valid,” Sharer said.

Townsend testified that all 112 lawmakers each had their own reasons for voting for or against the new map.

The Legislature argued that in order to show that the new map is an egregious partisan gerrymander, the GOP must prove that it diluted people’s votes.

Sen. Gallegos, who is also a plaintiff in the case, said he felt like his vote was diluted by the new map, based on his “historical interactions with Congresspeople.” He did not have any evidence that his vote was diluted.

Gallegos testified that the problem in the 2022 election conducted under the new map was “a statewide problem of disenchantment by voters, and this seemed to be in the Republican sector.”

Sean Tendre is shown after testifying in court on Sept. 28, 2023. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

New map more partisan than 2 million simulated maps, expert says

The GOP witness who spent the most time testifying was journalist and political analyst Sean Trende.

Trende testified by the time of the 2022 redistricting, Republicans had for the first time a small voter registration edge in CD2. Redistricting reversed that, he testified, giving Democrats a 13% registration edge in the district.

Trende wrote in his written testimony that the voting precincts that lawmakers retained from Concept H, and those precincts they swapped from Concept H, “took a map that was already favorably aligned toward Democrats, and made it even more so.”

Tseytlin said lawmakers unnecessarily moved 500,000 voters from one district to another.

“These were not politically neutral shifts,” Trende testified.

Sanchez said no one is suggesting that the new map is “agnostic.”

“The political reality is that the GOP is in the minority in the Legislature. The governor is a Democrat,” Sanchez said. “That’s probably not the best political environment for a whole lot of bipartisan compromise to happen.”

Tseytlin said the state Supreme Court told Van Soelen to consider voter registration in his decision, but Sanchez said putting too much weight on voter registration data is a bad idea.

Sanchez said it was the first time in 30 years that the Legislature has expressed its policy preferences in redistricting.

In the three previous redistricting cycles, the Legislature and governors were unable to agree on new maps, and instead left it up to judges, who have all redrawn the maps trying to make as little change as possible, according to testimony from Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling, Inc. and an expert witness hired by the Legislature for this trial.

“So it’s not surprising to see change, and there is no constitutional requirement for a least change map,” Sanchez said.

Trende testified that he ran more than 2 million simulations of how lawmakers could have redrawn the congressional map, and the one they ended up drawing was “more extreme than 95% of the maps generated.”

Trende testified that Democrats are now entrenched in CD2, and that the new map was “a platonic ideal of a Democratic gerrymander.”

Sanderoff, on the other hand, testified that the new map does not entrench Democrats in CD2, and the upcoming race between Gabe Vasquez and Yvette Herrell is a “toss up.”

“In 2024, any candidate could win, absolutely,” Sanderoff testified.

The Legislature’s other expert witness Dr. Jowei Chen, an associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan, evaluated New Mexico’s Congressional districting plan, and tried to determine if it could have emerged from a partisan-neutral map-drawing process.

He testified that CD2 under the new map is less partisan than two-thirds of the 1,000 maps that he simulated using his own algorithm designed to ignore partisan data and influence.

“It is not a statistical outlier,” he testified.

The Legislature’s attorneys instructed Chen to evaluate the partisanship of the Senate Bill 1 maps compared to 1,000 simulations following certain criteria including one that required no single congressional district in any computer-simulated plan to contain more than 60% of the state’s active oil wells.

Sanchez said Chen’s simulations “recognize policy choices” and are realistic. The expert wrote in written testimony that he considered even populations in all three districts, requests by Native nations, avoiding county splits, and oil industry considerations. 

Tseytlin said Chen “was forced to cook the books” by programming his simulation algorithm to account for the location of oil wells.

Chen testified the location of oil wells is not a traditional criteria in redistricting in the U.S.

Tseytlin said the oil consideration is a “partisan constraint” and “a pretext for the partisan gerrymander.” He said Chen “admitted” that the new map cracked southeastern New Mexico.

Sanderoff testified he had never heard of such a redistricting criteria in New Mexico. He has worked for the Legislature in four different redistricting cycles starting in 1991, and his company staffed the Citizens Redistricting Commission and helped them hold public meetings across the state in the summer and fall of 2021.

Brian Sanderoff steps down from the witness stand on Sept. 27, 2023. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

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