Citizens passionate about fair elections will come together over the next year to painstakingly plot out the political lines that will govern state and federal races for the next decade — without fear or favor to partisan interests.
At least, that’s the ideal set out by a pair of constitutional amendments, approved by seven in 10 voters that Colorado will test out for the first time.
Starting in a few months, new independent redistricting commissions will grab the wheel, steering the process of redrawing congressional and legislative districts, a process that in the past has often been dominated by whichever party held more sway.
There’s no guarantee that politics will be left entirely at the door in 2021, of course. A lot will hinge on who gets picked as commissioners, how well they work together, and how they juggle competing interests, including jockeying for an 8th congressional seat that’s expected to be granted to fast-growing Colorado.
But advocates say the 12-member commissions are set up to keep decision-making out of back rooms. Each is required to be divided evenly between Democratic, Republican and unaffiliated members, with each group taking four seats. Many political insiders and lobbyists are barred from being members, and extensive rules require consensus to approve the new maps, with a decisive role handed to the unaffiliated members.
The state constitution, for the first time, also makes districts’ competitiveness a key consideration, though it puts that behind other priorities aimed at ensuring good representation.
“This is a really unique opportunity,” said Amanda Gonzalez, who as executive director of Colorado Common Cause took part in a wide-ranging, cross-partisan coalition that crafted the amendments in 2018. “This is the first time that, officially, regular people have control of the process, and they’ll be picking their politicians, not the other way around.”
One commission, created by Amendment Y, will use fresh population data from the 2020 census to redraw boundaries for Colorado’s congressional districts. A separate commission, created by Amendment Z, will redraw its 65 state House districts and 35 Senate districts. More than 3,000 applications came in ahead of a November deadline. The carefully calibrated selection process — designed to minimize favoritism — is underway.
“The process is messy, but there are elaborate checks and balances built in” to keep either major party from stacking the deck this time, said Josh Penry, a Republican strategist and former state lawmaker.
He also was involved in the talks on the 2018 amendments, and in a recent interview he mused: “You wonder how previous map-drawing exercises in Colorado would’ve been different with the (same) bright light of public scrutiny.”
Colorado’s change to independent commissions is among a handful of highly watched redistricting reforms enacted among states in recent years. Though other states have been more egregious in gerrymandering their districts to maximize wins for one party, fighting over Colorado’s maps often has spilled into the courts.
The state legislature long was handed the task of redrawing congressional districts, and a reapportionment commission — created by voters in a previous 1974 good-government overhaul — redrew state legislative districts. In 2011, after political flare-ups and charges of back-room dealing, judges signed off on the eventual legislative and congressional maps pushed by Democrats.
The congressional map has proven slightly competitive, though it took Democrats several tries to oust Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman from his redrawn suburban Denver district. The party succeeded in 2018, gaining a 4-3 edge in the delegation.
Under the state House map, Democrats have carried a clear — though not overwhelming — advantage as they’ve racked up big wins, according to a 2017 Associated Press analysis, which didn’t consider the Senate map. In the Nov. 3 election, Democrats maintained their 41-24 House majority and expanded their Senate edge to 20-15.
How the process will play out
The once-a-decade redistricting exercise is rarely elegant, coming with imperatives that range from the functional to the politically explosive.
Under the constitutional amendments, the commissions are charged with rebalancing all district lines to account for population growth and shifts, in ways that result in compact districts — but nonetheless keep “communities of interest” together. Those could be cities and counties or racial and ethnic groups spread over larger areas.
The map-makers are not allowed to consider potential impacts on incumbents.
There’s some uncertainty to the timeline, owing to expected delays in the delivery of Colorado’s new population data by the U.S. Census Bureau, said Jessika Shipley, the new commissions’ staff director. She’s a veteran from the nonpartisan Colorado Legislative Council who was involved in Colorado’s 2011 redistricting process.
But she said the commissions will be ready to roll when the data arrives, expected anytime from late winter to early summer. Here’s what to expect, based on the amendments’ requirements:
Membership selection: An elaborate process will whittle down lists of 1,488 applicants for the legislative commission and 2,101 for the congressional commission, including plenty who applied for both. By mid-March, a panel of state judges will use a mix of random draw and attention to geographic, racial, ethnic and gender diversity as they fill each commission’s eight partisan and four unaffiliated slots. For each commission, Democratic and Republican legislative leaders get to pick smaller applicant pools from which each party’s final two slots will be filled.
Plenty of current and former political insiders have applied, but the rules generally bar those who recently have held elected office in Colorado, been a candidate for certain offices, occupied high positions in political parties or been registered as lobbyists. The restrictions go back three or five years.
Initial maps and public hearings: After census data is delivered, the commissions’ nonpartisan staff will use a computer program to draw preliminary district map proposals. Plans call for 21 public meetings across the state — three in each of the current congressional districts — by July deadlines (staggered between the commissions) to collect suggestions on the districts. Yet to be decided, Shipley said, is whether the meetings will be conducted in-person or remotely.
Debate and further proposals: From there, the commissions will hash out priorities and public input as the staff prepares new map proposals. Among the rules: Commissioners can request changes or newly created maps only during public meetings, though anyone can propose a map for consideration. Any lobbying by outside interests must be disclosed within 72 hours.
Adoption of maps: The congressional commission has until Sept. 15 to adopt new district lines. The legislative commission has until Sept. 30. To approve a map, it will take a supermajority — 8 of 12 members — including at least two of the unaffiliated commissioners.
The Colorado Supreme Court then will review the maps for adherence to the criteria spelled out by the state constitution, potentially sending them back to the commissions for changes. The court has until Dec. 15 to approve the final congressional map and until Dec. 29 to approve the state House and Senate maps.
If outside interests think the maps violate any rules, they can still bring court challenges.
“It can’t be any worse,” analyst says
Basic politics is intrinsic to redistricting, as every decision hinges on competing interests — from the state level to the street level, across the urban-rural divide, and within basic disagreements such as whether to run district lines through counties or around them.
But will these new commissions be free of the political bickering that’s defined the past?
“I’d start by saying it can’t be any worse,” said Eric Sondermann, an independent political analyst in Denver.
He’ll be among those watching closely as the commissions put new concepts into practice — and the political and legal worlds adjust.
“The proof will be in the pudding,” he said, “but this is an effort to take both of these processes several steps further away from blatant partisanship. Again, it can’t be worse. It depends on how many high-quality people without a political ax to grind get selected.”
Shipley, the commissions’ staff director, said she’s hopeful they will have a wide range of voices, though it took a late call for more applicants to increase the pools’ diversity. Applicants still ended up disproportionately white and skewed older. The likely big time commitment kept some people who work full-time from applying, she said.
As she prepares for the year ahead, she pointed to key distinctions in the process.
“There will be a lot less back-room stuff because of the requirements for who can talk to whom and when,” Shipley said, adding: “The commissioners can’t just go meet with legislative leadership and decide it all, and then it’s done — which is frankly what happened last time.”
For their part, Colorado’s major political parties each tried to recruit commission applicants and will be watching closely. Spokesmen for each keyed in on the importance of public input — a point in the process where the parties at least can encourage varying interests to speak up.
“We want to make sure we encourage as many people from as many communities as possible to chime in,” said the Democrats’ David Pourshoushtari, “because it affects them.”
Joe Jackson, the Colorado GOP’s spokesman, said voters approved the amendments “because they wanted politically balanced commissions that would consider the needs and voices of all four corners of Colorado. We hope that is their priority as they move forward with this process.”
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