Albuquerque Journal Commentary: Gerrymandering fans the flames of political polarization

August 27, 2023
Kevin Johnson

This op-ed by ERN Executive Director Kevin Johnson and Common Cause's National Redistricting Manager, Dan Vicuña, originally appeared in the Albuquerque Journal.

Across the nation, partisan gerrymandering divides our communities and dilutes the power of our vote so those in power can stay in power. But how do we know when gerrymandering has actually occurred?

An increasing number of state courts are ensuring that maps are reflective of the people, not of incumbent politicians. These courts need to know that tools already exist to require fair districting so all voters are equally and equitably represented in our democracy.

New Mexico’s current court challenge to its congressional map provides an opportunity for the state to continue the national momentum to define partisan gerrymandering legally and quantifiably, and to encourage other states to follow suit in protecting voting rights by policing the manipulation of voting maps.

Recently, a coalition of national experts and in-state watchdog groups jointly filed an amicus brief – or “Friend of Court” submission – providing an independent, nonpartisan analysis of New Mexico’s congressional map. Issued in support of neither party, the brief offered the Fifth District Court guidance for applying the three-part standard articulated by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan in her dissenting opinion in Rucho v. Common Cause – a framework recently embraced by New Mexico’s Supreme Court to assess the fairness of district lines.

The brief supports voters and our collective belief in a fair, transparent election process where disputes like this can and should be decided by the courts based on objective criteria. It describes how the judge can make an objective, data-driven decision, drawing on the best statistical tools and resources available.

New Mexico is not alone in this fight. Across the nation, 15 states are litigating congressional maps, most immediately Utah, where another supreme court may be on track to rule that legislatures do not have unconstrained control over redistricting. Additionally, 23 states are battling over contested legislative maps. Few things are as critical to the health and survival of our democracy as the fight to make clear that courts can – in fact – determine partisan gerrymandering with reasonable certainty.

New Mexico is among one of the first states in the nation to apply the Kagan standard, and it is essential that this state does it well. The nation is watching. The amici for this brief hope the court finds value in the impartial legal analysis of how to marry the Kagan standard to the best available data.

New Mexicans, and all Americans, deserve fair representation and a government that is worthy of the public’s trust. At its core, gerrymandering, and the abuse of our redistricting process harms our democracy by fanning the flames of political polarization, gridlock, and disillusionment with our government. This spotlights the underlying need for greater systemic reforms, like independent redistricting commissions.

But until states and Congress step up to that challenge, we must help the courts sort it out. By utilizing the Kagan standard, New Mexico can set a standard for fairly assessing maps and protecting voting rights for all.