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Morgan Lee
Associated Press

SANTA FE, N.M. — Political boundaries are being redrawn by New Mexico's Democrat-led Legislature in a sparsely populated state where Hispanics and Native Americans account for roughly six in 10 residents.

The Legislature convenes Monday at noon to forge new district boundaries for three congressional districts and 112 seats in the state Legislature, along with a Public Education Commission that oversees charter schools.

The process will reshape a congressional swing district in southern New Mexico that flipped to Republican control in 2020. 

Republicans need a net gain of just five seats to take control of the U.S. House and effectively freeze President Joe Biden's agenda on climate change, the economy and other issues.

In New Mexico, Democrats for the first time in 30 years will control both the governor's office and Legislature during redistricting, with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham holding veto authority over the process.

Advocates for ethnic and racial minority populations are pushing a plan that would divvy voters from the conservative southeastern corner of the state into three congressional districts. The state Republican Party party has denounced the plan as gerrymandering.

"I think we have different definitions of communities of interest and fair representation," said Oriana Sandoval, CEO of the Center for Civic Policy that favors an overhaul of the 2nd District that would ensure Latinos a 55 percent share of the voting-age population. "What we heard from our members in the current status quo is not giving fair representation to that part of the state."

New Mexico is among several states including Indiana that used a citizens advisory board to temper political inclinations without taking redistricting powers away from state lawmakers. Judges might wind up using the advisory maps to resolve redistricting lawsuits.

New Mexico's redistricting committee vetted maps at a series of public meetings across the state and endorsed three options each for Congress, the state House and state Senate. Legislators can adopt, amend or discard those maps.

"Changes are inevitable, but at the same time honoring the work that they've done," said state Sen. Bill O'Neill, D-New Mexico. All three of the recommended state Senate maps would pair O'Neill against a Democratic colleague in the next election.

He doesn't expect Democratic legislators to press their advantage to preserve or expand power.

"We're New Mexico, we're better" than that, O'Neill said. "We have a tradition of working together."

States must redraw their congressional districts every 10 years to reflect new population numbers from the decennial census. 

New Mexico presents unusual challenges in efforts to comply with the U.S. Voting Rights Act and preserve communities of interest and give minority voters a fair shot to elect candidates of their choice.

Nearly 48 percent of state residents claim Hispanic ancestry — the highest portion in the nation. The share of New Mexico residents who identify themselves as Indigenous by race or by combined ancestry is 12.4 percent.

The state is home to 23 federally recognized tribes, whose growing political clout is reflected in the election of Laguna Pueblo tribal citizen Deb Haaland to Congress in 2016 and her promotion this year to secretary of the Interior. 

Haaland won the 2018 and 2020 elections to lead the state's 1st congressional district. At the time, the district was 71.6 percent White, 49.4 percent Hispanic or Latino (of any race), 4.3 percent American Indian or Alaska Native, 14.2 percent some other race, 2.9 percent Black or African American, 2.3 percent Asian, and 0.1 percent Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander, according to the 2010 Census

The governor also has opened the special legislative session in December to new proposals for spending roughly $1 billion in federal pandemic relief.

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Indian Country Today contributed to this report.