Our redistricting process is broken.

It’s time that Colorado communities, not politicians, draw their districts.

The Problem

The bipartisan push to reform the redistricting and reapportionment processes in Colorado is a struggle for the political heart and soul of our state. Redistricting and reapportionment are the procedures for redrawing the boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts every 10 years to reflect population changes identified in the Census.

All around the country, and in Colorado too, the system has been badly abused by party insiders. In both 2003 and 2011, Colorado’s existing procedures for redistricting and reapportionment were dominated by partisan political appointees, resulting in bitterly divided and partisan affairs that lacked transparency, protected incumbent lawmakers, and resulted in a record low number of competitive congressional and legislative seats in a state that is near-evenly divided.

The chief defect in the current system is a lack of safeguards to prevent political gerrymandering – or the drawing of legislative and congressional districts for the sole purpose of protecting a given party or a specific incumbent. Gerrymandering is a prime mover of polarization in our politics, and polarization fuels the discord and dysfunction that predominates our political landscapes. When party bosses pick their own voters, it is the political parties that win. Allowing politicians to manipulate the drawing of their own legislative districts is a conflict of interest that fundamentally undermines representative government and, more practically, the fundamental ability for the voters to have a real voice in choosing their elected leaders.

When party nominees are granted seats so safe that they only need votes from their own party to win a general election, the path to political office begins and ends during the party nomination phase, where hardline voices overwhelmingly prevail. This leaves legislative institutions populated by hardline voices representing hardline constituencies. Therefore, in gerrymandered districts, elected representatives are effectively representatives of their political party first, foremost, and always.

The Consequences

Colorado is one of the most competitive political states in the union – near evenly divided between Democrats, Republicans and Independents. But consider:

›     Only 3 of 65 seats in the Colorado State House of Representatives are competitive, meaning that 95% of the seats in that chamber are 100% controlled by one party or the other.

›     Only 6 of 35 seats in the Colorado State Senate are competitive, meaning 83% of the seats in that chamber are 100% controlled by one party or the other.

›     Only 1 of Colorado 7 Congressional Districts are competitive, meaning 86% of the seats in Colorado’s Congressional delegation are 100% controlled by one party or the other.

›     In 2016, the average Congressional race in Colorado was won by 23 percentage points, or a raw vote margin of almost 90,000 voters.

The prevalence of gerrymandered districts means Congressional seats become essentially the property of incumbent members until they decide to retire or run for another office. In Colorado, with only one competitive Congressional seat, that deprives 86% of Colorado voters from having a functional say in who represents them in Congress.

The problems created by gerrymandering have become so bad that a recent study found that Colorado’s Statehouse was the second most polarized legislative chamber in the country.

Colorado's Independent Voters Effectively Disenfranchised Under Current System

Colorado is broadly known as one of the nation’s premier political battlegrounds. The presidency and control of the U.S. House and U.S. Senate frequently hang on the verdict of Colorado voters – and our status as a swing state is largely explained by the pivotal role played by Independent voters.

Today, Independents are the single largest voting bloc in Colorado.

Remarkably, Independent voters are, for all intents and purposes, disenfranchised in the current redistricting and reapportionment processes. The task of redrawing congressional lines is currently in the hands of the General Assembly, which is comprised entirely of Republicans and Democrats.

Similarly, the Assembly has no requirement that Independents have a designated voice in the process. Even in cases where Independents have been appointed to the legislative reapportionment panel, they have almost always been badly outnumbered, and too often the Independents selected have been little more than proxies for one party or the other. In 2011, for example, the chairman of the reapportionment process was a nominal Independent, but voted with one party on 100% of the maps, drawing criticism from media observers.

The net effect is that Independents have no guaranteed role in the map drawing process, a reality that has left the largest group of voters effectively powerless to shape the building blocks of lawmaking in the state.

Colorado's Map Drawing Processes in 2003 and 2011: A Case Study in Bitter Partisanship and Gerrymandering

In Colorado, both parties have taken their opportunities to gerrymander when they were in power and controlled the redistricting process.

In 2003, when the GOP controlled both houses of the General Assembly and the Governor’s office, Republicans conducted the infamous “Midnight Gerrymander” and replaced court-approved congressional maps with maps drawn by party insiders, a never-seen-before gambit, attempting to guarantee Republicans had broad control of a majority of congressional districts for the next decade.

In 2011, after an eight-month process that included input from citizens and organizations all across the state of Colorado, Democrats, then broadly controlling the majority of levers of influence in the legislative map drawing process, rammed through brand new, never-before-seen maps without any public input in less than 24 hours. These maps gave Democrats monopoly control of the Colorado statehouse, and were carefully drawn to protect incumbent Members.

In the aftermath of the ugly map drawing spectacles in 2003 and 2011, analysts and observers decried both the process and the outcome, and called for changes before the next round of map drawing in 2020.

Historical Agreement Across Party Lines - Gerrymandering Is Bad for the Nation

For decades, gerrymandering has undermined the country’s political institutions, a reality that has accelerated in recent years as the country has devolved into near-constant hostility and contempt between the political parties. In fact, two former presidents – Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan – have been two of history’s most outspoken critics of gerrymandering and the need to end the conflict of interest of politicians drawing their own legislative maps. Their logic is as fresh and powerful now as ever:

“If we want a better politics, it’s not enough to just change a congressman or a senator or even a president,” Obama said. “We have to change the system to reflect our better selves. We have to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters and not the other way around.”

President Barack Obama, State of the Union Address (2016)

“The fact is gerrymandering has become a national scandal,” said Reagan. “A look at the district lines shows how corrupt the whole process has become. The congressional map is a horror show of grotesque, contorted shapes. Districts jump back and forth over mountain ranges, cross large bodies of water, send out little tentacles to absorb special communities and ensure safe seats.”

President Ronald Reagan (1987)

A Plan to End Gerrymandering in Colorado: Fair Districts Colorado

A bipartisan group called Fair Districts Colorado has filed multiple initiatives (67, 68, 69) for the 2018 election to reform redistricting and reapportionment in Colorado. The measures, backed by a broad spectrum of influential leaders including former Governors Bill Owens (R) and Dick Lamm (D), would create an impartial process for drawing lines, ban gerrymandering, protect communities of interest – including rural and minority voting blocks – and guarantee Independents have a seat at the table in the map drawing process for the first time. Specifically, the initiatives would:

›           Create an independent commission balanced equally between Democrats, Republicans and Independents not affiliated with either of the two major parties to draw district boundaries. For the first time in Colorado, Independents would be guaranteed a seat at the table in the redistricting process.

›     Have senior or retired judges select 20 Independent applicants deemed qualified for the commission, from which four are selected by a lottery-like process, thus, ensuring partisans are unable to game the system in the selection of Independent members. In other words, Independent members of the commission would need to be truly independent.

›     Require a super-majority of commission members – including at least two of the Independent members – to support maps in order for them to become final, preventing a single political party from hijacking the map drawing process.

›     Stipulate that only the commission’s impartial, non-partisan professional staff may draw the initial maps. If the commission fails to agree on legislative and Congressional maps, the non- partisan staff’s maps would become final.

›     Require the redistricting commission to draw competitive districts, where realistically possible, that give either political party a chance to win.

›     Protect communities of interest, including minority voters and rural communities from being manipulated for partisan reasons. The initiative was specifically written to ensure that minority communities are protected and that more competitive districts lines will force politicians to work to earn minority voter support and represent their interests in office.

›     Require the redistricting commission to conduct its business transparently, by subjecting it to open meetings, open records and other sunshine laws, a requirement that would end the kind of backroom meetings and last-minute partisan deal-making that has defined the map drawing process in Colorado.

›     Enshrine requirements that ensure geographic blocs like the Western Slope, Eastern Plains, San Luis Valley, and the City of Aurora cannot be artificially diluted or divided.

Who Supports the Fair Districts Reforms?

Organizations:

Action 22
African Leadership Group
CleanSlateNow Institute
Colorado Association of Realtors
Colorado Business Roundtable
Colorado Concern
Colorado Farm Bureau
Denver Metro Commercial Association of REALTORS®
Douglas County Business Alliance
Grand Junction Economic Partnership
Greater Boulder Green Party
Fremont County Board of County Commissioners
Pro 15
The Centrist Project
The League of Women Voters of Colorado
South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce

Current and Former Elected Officials:

Former Arapahoe County Commissioner John Brackney (R)
Former Senate Minority Leader and House Majority Leader Norma Anderson (R)
Former US Senator Hank Brown (R)
Former Secretary of State Bernie Buescher (D)
Former State Representative Kathleen Curry (U)
Former State Representative Brian DelGrosso (R)
Former House Majority Leader Tim Foster (R)
Former Speaker of the House Mark Ferrandino (D)
Former State Senator Bob Hagedorn (D)
Former Mayor of Fruita Ken Henry (R)
Former Senate Majority and Minority Leader Mark Hillman (R)
Grand Junction City Councilman Chris Kennedy (D)
Former Governor Dick Lamm (D)
State Representative Larry Liston (R)
Boulder County Trustee Jim Martin (D)
Former Fruita City Council Member Stacey Mascarenas
Mesa County Commissioner Scott McInnis (R)
Former Speaker of the House Frank McNulty (R)
Former State Representative Carl Miller (D)
Former State Representative Clarice Navarro-Ratzlaff (R)
Former Governor Bill Owens (R)
Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace (D)
Former State Senator Josh Penry (R)
Former State Senator Jim Rizzuto (D)
Former Senate President Pro Tempore Ellen Roberts (U)
Former State Senator Chris Romer (D)
Former Speaker of the House Lola Spradley (R)
Former State Senator Ron Teck (R)
Former State Representative Steve Tool (R)
Former House Minority Leader and State Senator Larry Trujillo (R)
Former State Senator Ron Tupa (D)
Former State Representative Rob Witwer (R)

Individuals:

Steve Farber, President Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck
Ron Forthofer, Former Green Party Candidate for Congress
Jay Geyer, Candidate State House District 33
Harry Hempy, Former Green Party Candidate for Governor
Bob Loevy Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Colorado College
Steve Peterson, Candidate State Senate District 30
Eric Sondermann, Independent Political Commentator
John Straayer, Professor of Political Science, Colorado State University
Kent Thiry, Chairman and CEO, DaVita Inc.

Who Is Against the Fair Districts Plan?

Partisans, political operatives, and the very lawyers who have profited handsomely from map drawing litigation on both the left and the right have come out against the Fair District reforms.

On the right, a prominent lawyer attacked the Fair Districts plan, and the priority it places on competitive seats, calling the plan’s prioritization of competitiveness and protecting communities of interest “corrupt.”

Not far behind, a handful of progressive groups have attacked the reforms because they allow non- partisan staff to develop initial maps, and because, they argue, the Fair Districts plan inadequately protects minority voting rights. Ironically, some of the groups are supporting near identical measures to ban gerrymandering in other states.

None of these party line attacks hold water. In truth, the Fair Districts Reforms codify the Voting Rights Act, giving concrete protection to minority voting rights that map drawers and the courts simply cannot ignore. And the use of non-partisan legislative staff to prepare initial maps is vastly preferable to party operatives developing the maps, as has historically been the case. Attacks on using competitiveness as a criteria for map drawing also fall flat. Competitiveness goes to the heart of quality representation – far from a “corrupt” criteria, competitiveness forces elected representatives to represent their whole district, and not just their political party. Real corruption in map drawing is brought about by partisan gerrymandering, a tool that the political parties aren’t eager to give up.

Why 2018?

In the aftermath of the 2003 and 2011 map drawing fiascos, bipartisan efforts in the legislature backed by good government champions have attempted to reform how the state draws legislative and congressional lines. Each and every attempt has failed, usually at the behest of leaders in both parties. In the last analysis, any effort to make the redistricting and reapportionment processes independent and impartial undermine the power of the political parties. And the parties aren’t giving up this power without a fight.

The time to pass redistricting and reapportionment reform is now. In 2020, a new Census will almost certainly give Colorado an 8th Congressional District. And meanwhile, rapid growth is changing the make-up and character of Colorado.

Will Colorado’s growing population be given a meaningful choice about who represents them in the statehouse and in Washington, DC? Or will they be packed into legislative and congressional districts where the outcome is already decided in favor of one party or one incumbent?

If the map drawing process isn’t reformed now, Colorado – arguably the most competitive political state in the union – will be stuck once more with uncompetitive, gerrymandered districts manipulated by partisans at the behest of partisans for the benefit of partisans.

Colorado deserves better. Fair Districts Colorado will give voters the opportunity in 2018 to create a better path.