Latest redistricting proposal bound to fail, say minority lawmakers

Too little, too late.

That’s how several minority lawmakers feel about the latest draft of a ballot measure that purports to outlaw gerrymandering in Colorado.

Initiative 107 was filed this morning by former Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, a Highlands Ranch Republican, and former lawmaker Kathleen Curry, who was a registered Democrat for years until switching to unaffiliated in 2010.

The proposed ballot measure is the second effort by McNulty and others, including former Secretary of State Bernie Buescher, a Democrat, to change how the state draws the maps for Colorado’s seven congressional districts and 100 legislative seats.

The first attempt, submitted in November, immediately drew howls of protest from voting rights activists and minority groups who claimed the ballot measure would have disenfranchised minority voters.

Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing maps for congressional or legislative districts in a way that favors one political party over another.

In Colorado, as is the case in other states, map-drawing is politically contentious. Currently, the General Assembly is responsible for drawing congressional maps — a process that almost always ends up with courts making the final decisions.

Legislative maps currently are drawn by a bipartisan commission, with members appointed by various elected officials as well as the Chief Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court. That process isn’t much less contentious, although the last time around in 2011, the commission was able to draw maps that didn’t have to go to the courts for final resolution.

Sponsors of Initiative 107 — formerly known as Initiative 55 — said Thursday that the latest version takes into account the concerns identified by community leaders.

The latest draft incorporates these four major reform principles, according to the sponsors:

  • Map-drawing would be done by nonpartisan professionals on the staff of the Legislative Council, which already assists in map-drawing for both the congressional and legislative districts.
  • The redistricting composition remains at 12 members: four Republicans, four Democrats and four unaffiliated members.
  • The final map adopted must be agreed upon by at least eight members of the commission, ensuring no one political group could hijack the process.
  • The commission must conduct all of its discussion in open, public meetings. Any communications related to the commission’s business by a commissioner outside of the public meetings must be disclosed. Prohibited communications would result in the commissioner being dismissed.

The rules governing the appointment of the unaffiliated members changed between the first and second drafts. In the first draft, the four unaffiliated commissioners would be chosen by the eight other members.

The new version makes unaffiliated membership a matter of application, with the members to be chosen by the highest-ranking elected official from each party. That could be the governor and either the secretary of state, treasurer or attorney general. It could also be the leadership in the General Assembly, which could give the House and Senate leaders the chance to choose up to eight members of the commission: two unaffiliated and two from each political party.

The state Constitution requires six factors to be utilized when drawing maps:

  • Districts must be equivalent in population size
  • Districts must adhere to the federal Voting Rights Act, and in no particular order
  • Districts must be compact, not overly spread out
  • Districts must preserve, as much as possible, city, town or county boundaries
  • Maps should try to maintain the prior district boundaries as much as possible
  • Districts should attempt to preserve communities of interest, such as ethnic, cultural, economic geographic or demographic factors.

It’s that last factor that so riled voting rights and minority groups. In the first draft, the last four factors were listed in a priority order, with the communities of interest dead last. That was interpreted by opponents of the initiative that communities of color would be disenfranchised by being considered last.

The latest version of the proposal makes it clear that the last four factors are not to be considered in any priority order. In a statement issued yesterday, McNulty said that while drafters appreciated “the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the first version of our bipartisan effort to end gerrymandering, we also wanted to ensure that we incorporated constructive improvements” in the latest version.

But but those changes still aren’t enough to satisfy many of those who opposed the first version.

Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, a Commerce City Democrat, has been vocal and angry about the way the redistricting effort has been handled. He told The Colorado Independent this morning that he saw the latest version just last night, so there hasn’t been enough time to properly vet the draft with voting rights or minority groups.

“The entire proposal, in least in what I’ve seen, is designed to fail and to guarantee an outcome for partisan interest over the interests of communities,” he said. In addition, Ulibarri said, his take on the draft is that competitiveness still holds over communities of color.

The latest version was “sloppily put together” at the last minute in order to meet deadlines for this year’s election, he said.

Ulibarri acknowledged there had been good faith negotiations between the proponents and stakeholders, but said that many of the concerns expressed by stakeholders never made it into the final version submitted this morning.

Those criticisms were echoed by Rep. Joe Salazar, a Thornton Democrat, who said he still believes the ballot measure is unnecessary.

“What are they trying to fix?” Salazar asked this morning.

He pointed out that divided control of the General Assembly proves Colorado’s districts are already competitive.

Aside from whether the ballot measure is even needed, Salazar said it still doesn’t address “what we asked them to address.”

“They bought time to work on language that doesn’t match what we wanted, and now they claim we worked together. We suggested language and it isn’t in there. I’m pretty upset.”

The latest draft also doesn’t address some of the language requested by Common Cause. Executive Director Elena Nuñez told The Independent that they had sought a more open public process for the commission’s work. She applauds the “robust” public hearings included in the measure, but said that once maps are drawn there appears to be no opportunity for public reaction.

She also pointed out that there’s one set of criteria for drawing congressional maps and another for the legislative maps. The criteria is similar but weighted differently depending on which map is being drawn, she said.

But her biggest concern is what happens if the commission can’t agree on a map. The ballot measure puts legislative maps into the hands of the state Supreme Court if the commission can’t come to agreement. But the measure is silent on what happens if the commission can’t agree on congressional maps, Nuñez said.

The newest version, for now, has managed to keep on board two prominent Democrats who backed the first version — former Speaker of the House Mark Ferrandino of Denver and Buescher.

But James Mejia, who had been one of the measure’s first and strongest proponents, is no longer involved. He told The Independent this morning he has moved on to other projects, and stepped away “for time and practical purposes.”

Former Secretary of State Buescher continues to back the measure. “This draft takes a good product and makes it even better. Passage of this initiative would make Colorado the national model for redistricting reform,” reads his statement from Thursday.

Rich Coolidge of EIS Solutions — a firm headed by former Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, a Grand Junction Republican — acknowledged that the ballot measure wasn’t released to stakeholders until last night, when he said it was finally completed.

The deadline for getting the ballot measure through the process before petition signatures are collected is fast approaching. The initiative first must be reviewed by Legislative Council staff, which will issue a list of questions about the wording. It then must go to a “title board” in the Secretary of State’s office, which sets the measure’s title, among other details. The title board meets twice a month. Its last meeting to certify measures for the 2016 fall election is scheduled for April 20.

If the redistricting measure is challenged, the case would be heard by the Colorado Supreme Court.

Photo credit: Alyson Hart, Creative Commons, Flickr,