DENVER – An effort is underway to present Colorado voters with a ballot question that would reform the state’s congressional redistricting process.
Critics of the proposed initiative worry that it would limit minority voting blocs across the state by prohibiting drawing districts for the purpose of “augmenting ... the voting strength of a language or racial minority group.”
In all fairness, the proposed language would also prohibit mapping districts for purposes of “diluting” the voting strength of a minority group.
Proponents say they have constructed a bipartisan effort ahead of the 2020 census, when the next congressional redistricting process would get underway. After the 2010 census, Republicans and Democrats fought over redrawing Colorado’s seven congressional districts, which created more competitive boundaries, to the ire of some Republicans.
The issue was ultimately decided by Colorado courts after maps introduced by the Legislature during the 2011 session never advanced. Lawsuits were filed in Denver District Court, and in November 2011, the court ruled in favor of a Democratic proposal. In December 2011, the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed the Denver District Court decision.
Republicans were especially irked by the fact that Democrats had originally sought to pair conservative Grand Junction, in 3rd Congressional District, with liberal Boulder, in the 2nd Congressional District. Democrats also sought to move Parker in Douglas County into 3rd District along the Western Slope, held by Cortez Republican Scott Tipton. Those proposals never came to fruition.
Given the historical turmoil surrounding redistricting, proponents hope to alleviate controversy with a ballot effort that would focus on “transparency and fairness,” while eliminating gerrymandering, or manipulating boundaries to favor a party.
The proposal’s language is set for a review and comment hearing on Tuesday. If approved, proponents would need to collect 98,492 valid signatures to qualify for the 2016 ballot.
“Elections must be fair, fairness starts with redistricting and redistricting must be done in a nonpartisan way, so that neither party has a built-in advantage,” said former Colorado Secretary of State Bernie Buescher, a Democrat and proponent of the effort. “Competitive districts tend to produce legislators who are more responsive to all of their constituents.”
The proposed initiative would take congressional redistricting out of the Legislature by handing the responsibility over to an independent commission, as is the case for reapportionment of state legislative districts. The commission would include an equal number of Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated members.
Meetings would be held in public, with nonpartisan staff drawing the maps. It would take a supermajority of eight of the 12 commissioners to pass a map. Map-drawers would be required to create competitive districts.
The coalition of supporters includes former Govs. Dick Lamm, a Democrat, and Bill Owens, a Republican, as well as Republican state Sen. Ellen Roberts of Durango.
Both the Colorado Republican and Democratic parties were hesitant to comment on the proposed initiative so early in the process. Based on preliminary discussions, however, Republicans appeared more supportive of the effort than Democrats.
“A bipartisan reform effort for redistricting could produce a viable solution to an important issue, and I look forward to reviewing the proposed initiative language and engaging in an open dialogue about its merits,” said Ryan Lynch, executive director of the Colorado Republican Committee.
Mark Grueskin, a high-profile Denver attorney who represented Democrats in court during the last redistricting process, said he has serious concerns around the impact on minority voters. He pointed out that minority voting populations in Colorado are expected to increase significantly over the next two decades.
“We may be the only ones in the nation saying redistricting plans can’t augment minority voter power, which means that the minority percentages in each district ... are capped at whatever they are right now,” Grueskin said. “The truth is this was designed to make sure that increases in the Hispanic population would never be reflected in voting power. ... It’s an attempt to try and restrict the ability of Hispanics to participate in the electoral system.”