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Redrawing district lines is an art, a science, a history lesson


When they meet in special session later this year, New Mexico legislators will use cutting-edge computer programs -- along with basic math, history, geography and politics -- to redraw the state’s electoral districts based on the 2020 census.

New Mexico’s 2019 population was 2,096,829, according to www.census.gov/mycd. Our own Second Congressional District (NM02) has 705,615 residents, with 691,229 in NM01 and 699,985 in NM03.

Balancing the numbers in the three congressional districts and in 42 state Senate and 70 state House districts will be the challenge for legislators.

When I worked for U.S. Rep. Steve Schiff in the last 1980s and early 1990s, he represented all of Bernalillo, Torrance, DeBaca and Guadalupe counties in NMO1. Then U.S. Reps. Joe Skeen (NM02) and Bill Richardson (NM03) had equally tidy districts, with every county entirely within one district. Six counties were split between congressional districts after the 2010 census, and NMO2 became the largest U.S. House district that isn’t a whole state. It includes all or part of 19 of New Mexico’s 33 counties, even a bit of Albuquerque.

The average population of the 435 U.S. House districts is 710,767, based on the 2010 census, up from 646,946 in 2000. Montana, which has only one House seat despite being the fourth biggest state geographically, has the largest population of any single district, 994,416. Rhode Island, also a single district, is the smallest in size and in congressional district population, 527,624.

That’s the math.

Now the history and geography.

The U.S. Constitution assigns at least one congressional seat to each state, with the remaining seats allocated through an apportionment formula.

The first census in 1790 included the original 13 states, the districts of Kentucky, Maine and Vermont and the Southwest Territory (Tennessee). It counted about 3.9 million inhabitants. The Constitution set the number of U.S. representatives at 65 from 1787 until after that first census, which pushed it to 105 in 1793. That’s a little more than 37,000 people per district – about five percent of today’s average.

The number of congressional districts has been 435 since 1913, the year after New Mexico and Arizona became the 47th and 48th states. 435 was locked in by the Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929 except for a temporary increase to 437 from 1959-62 after Alaska and Hawaii became states.

 Early apportionment methods were created by Thomas Jefferson and by Daniel Webster. Webster served in the U.S. House and Senate and twice as U.S. secretary of state, ran for president and argued more than 200 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Huntington-Hill method of equal proportions has been used to apportion House seats among states since Congress adopted it in 1941. Edward Huntington (1874-1952) was a New York mathematician. Joseph Hill (1860-1938) was a New Hampshire statistician. Both were Harvard graduates.

Once seats are apportioned, legislatures or commissions in the states with multiple congressional districts redraw the lines based on decennial census figures.  

And here’s the politics.

Former Vice President Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814) is best remembered because of redistricting.

In 1812, during Gerry’s second year as governor, Massachusetts adopted district boundaries that increased the majority party’s control. The new lines created some oddly shaped districts, including a state senate district that a newspaper compared to a salamander, calling it a “Gerry-mander.” (Gerry is pronounced with a hard “g,” but gerrymandering begins with a “j” sound.)

The line dividing NM02 from NM01 and from NM03 looks like an exercise program on a stationary bike, as it runs the entire width of the state.

Democrats have pretty solid control of NM01 and NM03 but have held the NM02 seat only four of the past 40 years, losing it again in 2020. Democrats want the seat back in 2022 and want to make it competitive going forward.

Maybe they can create a uniquely shaped NM02 that puts more Republicans in NM01 and NM03, but with uniquely Southwestern flavor. Instead of a gerrymander, we could call it a Blue Axototl, after the salamander known as the Mexican walking fish.