A ballot measure submitted for the 2016 election to set up a bipartisan commission to redraw boundaries for both congressional and legislative districts would weaken the power of the Latino vote in Colorado, critics say.
Under the proposed Initiative 55, a commission made up of four Democrats, four Republicans and four unaffiliated members would oversee the General Assembly’s nonpartisan staff in redrawing boundaries for both legislative and congressional districts.
It’s neither the composition of the committee nor the nonpartisan staff assigned to do the redrawing that most concerns critics. It’s that the initiative, as written, would prohibit the staff from mapping districts to augment or dilute the voting strength “of a language or racial minority group.”
Some say the priorities Initiative 55 sets for redrawing districts would violate the Voting Rights Act. The committee’s priorities in order of most to least importance are:
-Districts need equal populations.
-Mapping must comply with the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.
-Mapping must maintain county and city boundaries as much as possible within a district.
-Districts shouldn’t be spread out over large geographic areas.
-Districts should be competitive between Republican and Democrat candidates.
-The committee should recognize the importance of “communities of interest,” including “ethnic, cultural, economic trade area, geographic and demographic factors.”
In recent history, addressing “communities of interest” has been a major focus of redistricting efforts, former Democratic Denver Mayor Wellington Webb told The Colorado Independent.
Initiative 55 appears to be a solution in search of a problem, he said.
“This is clearly an effort to destroy the Latino vote in Colorado.”
Even in the 2003 redistricting process that became known as the “midnight gerrymander,” when Republicans rushed through a redistricting bill in the last three days of the session, the communities of interest factor was a higher priority — fourth out of six — than it is in Initiative 55.
Cameron Lynch, a Republican operative who helped draw the maps in 2011, questioned just how the unaffiliated voters on the committee would be chosen. That’s a concern for Webb, too, who said he agreed with political pundits like George Will and William Buckley, who said that becoming an independent voter was no harder than filling out a voter registration card.
Independent affiliation does not guarantee non-partisan neutrality, Webb said.
Attorney Mark Grueskin warns that the language concerning communities of interest could create legal troubles down the road. Should the ballot measure remain as it is currently written, it would risk violating the Voting Rights Act.
The language on not increasing or diluting minority voting strengths is “inherently problematic,” Grueskin said Wednesday. “The goal of thoughtful [map] drawing is not to marginalize communities of color.”
Any ballot measure that sets a ceiling for minority voting strength will be constitutionally suspect “and the worst possible policy that one could imagine in the process of redistricting,” he said.
Grueskin pointed out that because the drafters make maintaining county and city lines a first priority, map drawers would have no choice but to split up communities of color in order to have the right population numbers in each district.
He called it a redistricting approach “right out of the early 20th century,” when minority voters were intentionally disenfranchised.
Democrat James Mejia, a former Denver School Board member, heads the bipartisan group sponsoring the measure. He told The Independent Wednesday there was no intent to dilute communities of interest.
Nothing is set in stone yet, he said, adding that the group welcomes comments and suggestions on the language of the initiative. “We’re all ears” and open to any revisions anyone wants to suggest.