The protracted and partisan discussion about how to redraw the Colorado legislative district boundaries has taken several turns since the process began last summer, arriving at an almost-conclusion Tuesday. While the map approved by the Colorado Reapportionment Commission meets the criteria for how the districts must be crafted, there is no shortage of head-scratching outcomes particularly for Southwest Colorados House districts.
In a process that devolved from thinly veiled to blatant partisanship, the commission was taking a second stab at redistricting after the state Supreme Court rejected the initial map favored by Democrats. The new map, which is even more favorable to Colorado Democrats, puts Durango, Gunnison, Lake City, Ouray and Pagosa Springs together in the 59th District, and links Cortez, Telluride and Montrose in the 58th. These sprawling, mountainous districts would be hard-pressed to be defined as the communities of interest the commission was aiming to create unless the definition of such communities is based solely on county lines. By that litmus, the map approved Tuesday succeeds: It creates districts in Western Colorado that include whole counties, with one exception Gunnison.
Faced with the challenge of drawing districts of equal population as well as a series of constitutionally dictated requirements, the commission had a tall task. As the states website outlining the process says, each district, ... must be as compact as possible and the sum of the perimeters of all districts must be as short as possible.
Districts must be composed of contiguous election precincts. Counties and cities cannot be split unless necessary to achieve equal population. Finally, communities of interest ethnic, economic, cultural, demographic, trade area and geographic are to be preserved within a single district whenever possible.
Given the geographical and political landscape of the state, and the fact that this effort was conducted by way of a reapportionment commission comprising five Democrats, five Republicans and an unaffiliated chairman, it is not surprising the process wound up in court this time at the request of Republicans who opposed the map approved by the commissions Democrats and its chairman. The court kicked the map back to the commission to reconfigure, emphasizing keeping counties intact. The Democrats ran with those orders, to the Republicans dismay.
The new map, widely expected to meet court muster, puts at risk several Republican leadership positions and makes the 59th District more competitive by exchanging the moderate-to liberal-leaning Gunnison for conservative Cortez. It also creates competition among incumbent Republicans in other districts where the boundaries will force one to quit or face a primary.
Partisanship aside, though, it is difficult to see how the new boundaries link together communities of interest. Indeed, it raises the question of whether commission members have ever visited this part of the state. Durango and Gunnison are separated by 171 miles and a 3½-hour drive; Cortez and Montrose by about 135 miles and 3 hours distances that suggest differences beyond geography. And while all who live on the Western Slope understand the reality of having to travel mountain passes, requiring an epic journey to cross a state House district seems onerous for would-be representatives. The 59th District now might be competitive, but given its scope, candidates might be scarce.
The state legislative map approved Tuesday follows the letter of the law, but its spirit is compromised and for the most cynical reasons.