Taking party politics out of mapping Colorado’s electoral districts

Taking party politics out of mapping Colorado’s electoral districts


Three of the last four attempts to map the state’s congressional and legislative districts have wound up in court with both Republicans and Democrats wagging fingers, accusing each other of carving up the state to favor one party over another.

A bipartisan group, including two former governors and three former secretaries of state, wants voters in November 2016 to weigh in on reforming how this mapping works. The political bickering, they say, needs to stop.

Last week the group submitted a ballot measure, Initiative 55, that would create a 12-member commission made up of four Democrats, four Republicans and four unaffiliated voters, that would take over the mapping from the legislature.

The nonpartisan legislative legal staff of the General Assembly would still develop the maps for the commission to consider. After three tries, if the staff were unable to come up with a map to the commission’s liking, the ballot measure says, the map would go to the state Supreme Court.

The commission would have to conduct all of its business in open public hearings — a big shift from the secrecy tainting the current way redistricting works. Commission members would be barred from talking to people outside of public meetings about the process, preventing political operatives from slyly hijacking redistricting — a perennial problem as things work now.

The biggest difference between the current practice and the proposed one would be in the final steps: Maps would be approved only by a supermajority of eight of the 12 commissioners, ensuring that no one political party could control the process. And final approval would come from the Colorado Supreme Court, not the legislature.

Right now, the redistricting works as follows: Every 10 years, the General Assembly redraws the map for the state’s seven U.S. congressional seats and another group appointed by lawmakers redraws the state’s 65 House seats and 35 Senate seats.

The nonpartisan staff that draws the maps gets input from lawmakers pushed by political operatives who propose maps that would favor their parties.  

Most years, the bias is clear, and the process, at least from the Statehouse, is a failure. In 1980, 2000 and 2010, the proposed maps wound up in court with a judge making the final decisions.

Bob Loevy, a political science professor at Colorado College, who sat on the commission that redrew the state legislative boundaries in 2011, told The Colorado Independent that a change in how redistricting works is necessary.  

The commission he sat on included five Republicans, five Democrats and one unaffiliated member, Mario Carrera, who served as chair. Carrera was believed to lean left and had made campaign donations to Democrats in the past.

The 2011 commission wanted to do away with “safe” party seats. Too many safe seats, in which one party usually wins the seat, means the candidates have to be either arch-liberal or arch-conservative, Loevy said.

As a result, what matters is what happens in the primary, not the general election. And those who win primaries in safe seats tend to be polarized in their political beliefs.

The result? Politicians are accountable only to those who vote in primaries and not to voters in the general election, Loevy said. And that means a polarized Congress and legislature, and members in both who have trouble working together.

It’s one of the reasons, Loevy said, that so many legislatures nationwide are dominated by one party.

“When you leave redistricting in the hands of political parties, they draw the maps to create safe seats.” As a result, the same party continues to win control of the legislature no matter what’s happening politically in the state, he said.

Currently, 11 state legislatures are controlled by Democrats; 31 more are controlled by Republicans. One-party control of state legislatures is a trend that has been growing for at least the past decade.

Loevy believes the 2011 process, which created more “swing” seats, was part of the reason Republicans took the state Senate in 2014.

Redistricting has been “a disaster in the past,” said Democrat James Mejia, former Denver Public Schools board member and head of the the group that wrote the ballot measure. “There has to be a better way.”

Mejia’s pro-reform camp includes former Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, who led the 2011 congressional redistricting fight in the House. His efforts, which he described to The Independent as “rough and tumble,” failed the last day of the session amid angry accusations from both sides about which parties his proposal would benefit the most.

The maps, which were later completed by a Denver District Court judge, didn’t change the political party balance of Colorado’s congressional delegation: It has remained four Republicans and three Democrats in the U.S. House since 2011.

McNulty said reforming the process and making it less partisan would help all Coloradans. “More competitive congressional and legislative districts drawn through a process that is fair and transparent will make a world of difference.”

Former Republican Gov. Bill Owens, who signed the 2003 redistricting bill into law, only to see it tossed by the Colorado Supreme Court, backs the ballot measure, as does former Democrat Gov. Dick Lamm. The group also includes three of the five most recent secretaries of state.

Former Senate Majority Leader Norma Anderson, R-Lakewood, also supports reform. She spent 19 years in the General Assembly, serving as majority leader during the infamous redistricting fight in 2003.

That fight, referred to by Democrats as the “midnight gerrymander,” reached its zenith in the state Senate, which was then controlled 18-17 by Republicans. A congressional redistricting bill was introduced three days before the end of the 2003 session, the minimum amount of time to push the measure through the Legislature. Furious over being excluded from the process, Senate Democrats demanded the Senate clerk read the entire redistricting bill and pages of amendments and other bills at length, a process that took hours and required the efforts of every available Senate staffer. Democrats then refused to vote on the bill.

Then-Sen. Mark Udall, a Boulder Democrat, referred to the backroom deals alleged during the 2003 fight, noting in a 2006 tribute to Anderson that she had turned down a phone call from then-President George W. Bush advisor Karl Rove, “who was either the mastermind of the ham-handed strategy or simply an interested observer, depending on whose spin you believe. That may have been her proudest moment in the whole mess,” Udall said.

Anderson told The Independent she backs the constitutional amendment because it includes aspects of a successful plan in Iowa, one that was suggested for Colorado years ago by the late former state Senate Minority Leader Ken Gordon, D-Denver.

Whether the ballot measure’s ideas will work will depend on who gets onto the independent commission, according to GOP operative Cameron Lynch.

He was one of the Republicanswho helped draw the GOP maps for the 2011 redistricting process. He isn’t involved in the ballot measure group.

“The devil will be in the details,” Lynch told The Independent. He said he applauds those who are trying to fix what he calls a broken system that doesn’t serve Colorado well.

Lynch questioned the selection process for the independent commission, particularly for its unaffiliated members. We wonders how long would someone have to be unaffiliated in order to be chosen.

The ballot measure also uses the term “competitive district.” How would a competitive district be determined, Lynch asked. Would it be by past performance (as in, which party has been winning the most), or by voter registration?

Lynch also said that the current process is not entirely a failure.

“If your definition of success is a divided government, Colorado’s had it for years,” Lynch said, pointing to split control of the legislature, which has happened twice in the past decade, or when Republicans controlled the legislature but served under Democratic governors.

The backers of the ballot measure aren’t the only people in the U.S. frustrated by partisan attempts to control Congress and state legislatures through partisan mapping.

Ohio voters this month overwhelmingly decided to ban gerrymandering in their legislative map-making, a ballot measure strongly supported by the Ohio Legislature.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 14 states give the task of legislative-map drawing to groups other than their legislatures. Six states put their congressional map-drawing into the hands of an independent commission.

Ken Gordon, who passed away two years ago, was commonly viewed as one of the state’s most bipartisan leaders. He advocated for improving the election system.

In a 2011 interview with The Independent, Gordon talked about why a change in the process of drawing maps was long overdue.  

“When you have competitive districts, then everyone is heard because elected representatives know they need to represent everyone in order to be re-elected.”

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About the Author

Marianne Goodland

has been a political journalist since 1998. She covered the state capitol for the Silver & Gold Record from 1998 to 2009 and for The Colorado Statesman in 2010-11 and 2013-14. Since 2010 she also has covered the General Assembly for newspapers in northeastern Colorado. She was recognized with awards from the Colorado Press Association for feature writing and informational graphics for her work with the Statesman in 2012.

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