Leadership at the League of Women Voters in Colorado split over redistricting campaign

Leadership at the League of Women Voters in Colorado split over redistricting campaign

The president of the League of Women Voters of Colorado, a nonpartisan voter education group that lent its name and credibility to a revamped campaign to change the way Colorado draws its political boundaries, says the organization does not back the effort.

But the group’s vice president says it does.

Nancy Crow, who became president of the Colorado League in June, says that although the group’s name appeared as a “designated representative” in an application for a proposed state ballot measure and one of its members has been speaking on behalf of the League to media about the plan, the League is not officially on board.

“We have not voted as a board to support this initiative,” Crow says.

A group called Fair Districts Colorado hopes to get a measure on that ballot and encourage voters to pass a constitutional amendment to change the way Colorado’s congressional and legislative maps are drawn after each 10-year census.

The Colorado Independent previously reported the campaign “counts as a partner the League of Women Voters of Colorado, a group that carries plenty of neutral street cred— a kind of Red Cross on the battlefield of the partisan voting wars.” We also reported the campaign was “spearheaded” by the League of Women Voters. On paperwork submitted to the Secretary of State’s Office, the League and its mailing address appear under the name of League of Women Voters of Colorado vice president Toni Larson who did outreach for the redistricting proposal.  

When Fair Districts Colorado launched on Sept. 6, Lason and another League of Women Voters member, Jean Fredlund, spoke in support of it in a conference call with media. On its website, Fair Districts lists the League as a “coalition partner.”

But, “the League has not taken a stand, period,” Crow said Oct. 18.

Crow says other League members did not get board approval before filing official paperwork with the state that included the League’s name on the initiative. League vice president Larson has a different view.

“We have an internal issue here. We’re working it out in League style,” says Larson who is fully behind the redistricting plan. “We’re talking about it, we are putting out information and we will have a board discussion about it … in early December.”

Regardless, Larson says the Fair Districts proposal will be re-filed with some changes and without her name or the League’s name on it. “We have bent over backwards to address concerns from several different groups,” she says.

One of those with concerns is League president Crow who has been circulating information about the proposal among members. “Redistricting in Colorado is a high stakes proposition,” she wrote in one document. “Making the decision of whether to support the proposed initiatives will take a great deal of education, thought, and deliberation. In my opinion the possibility of unintentional consequences is highly likely, thus the reason for my concern.”

This week, Colorado Common Cause, a group that closely follows redistricting efforts, came out in opposition to the Fair Districts proposal.

The main Fair Districts proposal would change Colorado’s Constitution to create a 12-member commission that would draw political boundaries. Instead of the governor, chief justice, and legistlative leaders choosing its members, as they do now, the state’s two largest political parties would choose eight of the 12 members. The four non-major-party members would be recommended by a panel of retired judges and then ultimately be chosen by the major-party members.

Related: A group says it wants to end partisan redistricting in Colorado. Would its plan really do that?

The plan would require that districts to be compact, preserve county boundaries, and ensure communities of interest, “including racial, ethnic, language group, cultural, economic, trade area, geographic, and demographic factors,” are preserved within a single district wherever possible. (Racial and language group are new terms that don’t already exist in current law, says attorney Bill Hobbs an election law attorney with the Denver-based Ireland Stapleton firm who worked on the ballot measure.) Once other requirements are met, and “to the extent possible,” the measure states, the commission “shall maximize the number of politically competitive legislative districts.”

Among other concerns, Common Cause said in a statement the group worries the proposal as written gives too much power to political parties.

“Even the members of the commissions who are not affiliated with an appointing political party, called ‘independent members’ in the initiatives’ language, are subject to a process for selection that is wholly partisan,” Common Cause states. “The party appointees have the ultimate say as to which independents can serve.”

Crow says she personally shares some of Common Cause’s concerns.

Larson says a new tweaked version of the plan will make it so the parties don’t have so much influence.

The earliest the League of Women Voters would vote on whether to get officially involved with the Fair Districts Campaign would likely be in early December, Crow says, adding, “I’m trying to educate my membership on this.”

Meanwhile, the Fair Districts proposal faces an official challenge before the state board that approves proposals for next fall’s statewide ballot. The challenge, from two Colorado voters, alleges in part that the proposals fail to inform voters of “certain central elements of the measure.” For instance, the objection claims, “The ballot title fails to state that the representatives of the two largest political parties on the commission are appointed by the two parties themselves.”

Fair Districts Colorado is a revamped effort of a similar redistricting proposal that collapsed last year. Some of those behind the current campaign are political operatives who have been involved in redistricting for years. Some helped lead a similar— and controversial— campaign last year that fell apart when the Colorado Supreme Court blocked it on a technicality. Before that the effort faced harsh accusations that if it came to pass it would undercut the state’s large Latino vote. Critics in Colorado’s minority communities also said they didn’t have enough input into the plan.

Knocked down last year, the group — then called End Gerrymandering Now — vowed it would try again. It included former GOP House Speaker Frank McNulty and former GOP Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, as well as former Democratic Secretary of State Bernie Buescher, PR pro Rich Coolidge, and ex-lawmaker Kathleen Curry, a Democrat who later became unaffiliated.

Curry, whose name appears as the only other designated representative on the Fair Districts proposal, says Fair Districts has been working with three or four League members on “almost a daily basis” since late last winter.

“We have a truly non-partisan team, and the League’s involvement, their knowledge, and their dedication these last seven months has been invaluable,” she says. “I am confident that this relationship will continue.”

Frank McNulty, a former Republican House Majority Leader in Colorado who is working on the Fair Districts plan, says the principles on which the latest redistricting effort are founded have “very broad support” across members of a coalition supporting the campaign.

“Those are the things that keep us together,” he says. “The details are going to be different in the eyes of different people and different groups.”

McNulty says the Fair Districts group is keeping its doors open to anyone who wants to engage with it about the plan as the group works to get the measures in shape for next year’s ballot. If the Fair Districts plan is approved by the state, the group will have to gather petitions in all of Colorado’s 35 Senate districts under a new law that makes passing ballot measures harder.

On its website, Fair Districts lists more than two dozen supporters including a former governor from each political party, a former secretary of state from each political party, a handful of former legislative leaders, and a smattering of consultants and other public officials and figures.

The group faced criticism, though, for not having much support from minority communities. Two Latino Democrats, former Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia and former Sen. Abel Tapia, who initially appeared as backers of the effort, recently pulled their support.

The campaign to change how political boundaries are drawn in Colorado comes as multiple other states look to reform legislative and congressional redistricting and reapportionment and also as the U.S. Supreme Court deliberates on a case about whether partisan gerrymandering violates the Constitution.

In theory, says Crow, her group supports the idea of an independent commission handling redistricting.

“But not this one yet,” she says of the proposed ballot measures. “We still haven’t decided.”

Photo by Scott Akerman for Creative Commons on Flickr.

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About the Author

Corey Hutchins

is a journalist in Colorado, and Columbia Journalism Review's Rocky Mountain correspondent for the United States Project. Follow him on Twitter @CoreyHutchins and email him at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.

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