What you need to know about efforts to redistrict Colorado

You pull out your November ballot and read over several measures about redistricting congressional and legislative districts. Your eyes glaze over. Can you unpack the jargon, figure out whether one measure is fair or another might be designed to gerrymander — you know, carve districts to favor one party over another? Maybe one initiative would build the power of white voters and another would weaken the Latino voting bloc. Can you tell?

Probably not, unless you’re a lawyer. These ballot measures can be crafted to sneak in rules to undermine the small-d democratic process. And by the time you read the language, it’s been so tangled by legalese most people have no idea what they’re yaying or naying.

Over the next weeks, you may be asked to sign petitions to put different voter district mapping measures on the November ballot. It’s important to understand where these things came from and what they’re trying to do if you want to participate.

Why are you bringing this up? Is there a nefarious redistricting scheme in the works?

You’ll get different answers from different people. There’s already one much debated measure, Initiative 107, headed toward voters that has drawn criticism. It has an ugly history of accusations of racism and partisan gerrymandering tarnishing it.

Related: Redistricting initiative would “destroy the Latino vote in Colorado”

It’s not just what’s in Initiative 107 critics are worried about. It’s what came before it. Initiative 107 reworks another measure, Initiative 55, submitted last November by a bipartisan group of former lawmakers and other politicos. Critics said Initiative 55 was designed to gut the power of Colorado’s Latino voting bloc. 

Who are these people pushing Initiatives 55 and 107?

Initiative 55 was backed by two former top House leaders: Republican Frank McNulty of Highlands Ranch and Democrat Mark Ferrandino of Denver. Both spent time as Speaker of the House: McNulty from 2010 to 2012, and Ferrandino from 2012 to 2014.

Other backers of Initiative 55 included former Secretary of State Bernie Buescher of Grand Junction, a Democrat, and former Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, a Republican from Grand Junction.

Initially, the group also included James Mejia, a former member of the Denver Board of Education and a Democrat. Mejia has since moved on to other projects, he told The Colorado Independent.

Related: Facade of Democratic support for redistricting initiative crumbles

Last month, the group added former state Rep. Kathleen Curry of Gunnison as a backer. Curry is a former Democrat and at one point was the Speaker Pro Tem of the House. She lost that major leadership role when she dropped her party affiliation in 2010 and became unaffiliated. Curry ran for re-election to her seat in 2012 as an unaffiliated candidate but lost that race to now-Rep. Millie Hamner of Dillon, a Democrat.

If Initiative 107 is bipartisan, why don’t critics like it?

The November measure, Initiative 55, would have changed the priority order on criteria for drawing congressional maps. A requirement to keep “communities of interest” intact —  that includes ethnic groups — would be the last priority in drawing maps.

Because Initiative 55 deprioritized protecting communities of interest, a voting rights coalition decried the measure as racist. That group included Colorado Common Cause, the American Civil Liberties Union, COLOR, La Raza and the people of color caucuses at the state House and Senate.

Former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb weighed in saying the initiative would weaken Colorado’s Latino voting bloc and hurt Democrats chances of winning races.

Both Initiatives 55 and 107 were sent out to the coalition of critics just the night before the measures went to the Legislative Council, a process that “doesn’t inspire confidence” either in the proponents’ process or their willingness to fix the measure’s problems, said Democrat Jessie Ulibarri, one of the Senate’s leading critics of the measure.

Related: Latest redistricting proposal bound to fail, say minority lawmakers

Did Initiative 55 survive?

No. It was pulled. Some of the Democrats, who had originally been on board, gracefully exited the process after being privately pummeled by their party.

The measure’s sponsors decided to take another stab and say they invited critics to the table.

But lawmakers who blasted Initiative 55, including Ulibarri and state Rep. Joe Salazar, a Thornton Democrat, did not trust the intent of those writing it.

These critics say Alan Philp, a longtime GOP operative who has been involved in prior map-drawing efforts, is involved in the process and proves there is nothing truly bipartisan about it.

McNulty told The Independent he reached out to Salazar and Ulibarri and asked them to help. “They ignored requests by me, personally, to help draft, both by email and phone.”

Ulibarri said early on he and other critics met with the Initiative 55 proponents, including McNulty, Philp and Buescher. But the proponents of Initiative 107 didn’t bring language to the meeting that would have won critics over, Ulibarri told The Independent.

He said one of his principles as a lawmaker is to “not make a bad bill better, because then you’re stuck” with the result. “We won’t negotiate on a bad bill,” he said.

What do backers of Initiative 107 say they’re trying to do.

Proponents, including Curry, said the measure could become a national model to end gerrymandering.

“The plan we’ve put forward ensures equitable treatment for both political parties, real representation for Independent voters for the first time, nonpartisan-staff-driven maps, protections for communities of interest, the creation of competitive districts, and transparency, so maps are drawn and debated in public,” Curry said.

Do critics see any other problems?

Initiative 107 calls for one 12-member commission to draw both the congressional and legislative maps. Eight members would be selected by legislative leaders and no more than four could be from any one political party.

The last four members would be selected by the “highest elected ranking official” of each political party. Of those four members, two can be from a minor political party and two can be unaffiliated voters.

The voting rights advocates who have attacked Initiative 107 claim the “highest elected ranking official” could be from the General Assembly, putting the legislature in charge of picking up to 10 of the 12 commission members.

What’s the status of Initiative 107?

A three member panel at the Secretary of State’s office Wednesday passed the measure, and it is headed to the public for petition signatures.

“This is a quality initiative and should be given the benefit of a fair public hearing,” McNulty said.

The initiative’s critics are still struggling to stop it.

How?

Voting rights advocates submitted two redistricting ballot measures to the Secretary of State’s office last week. They say they want to avoid the political damage the first measure would cause and put more power in the hands of everyday people.

How does the system work now?

Every ten years, following the census, the General Assembly appoints a group of lawmakers who redraw congressional district maps.  For two decades, the process has been ugly. Maps end up in court. Judges make final decisions.

Currently an 11-member commission draws legislative district maps. The most recent group consisted of five members from each major political party and one unaffiliated voter. Commission members are appointed by legislative leaders, the governor and the Chief Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court.

Is the current system working?

Again, it depends on who you ask.

Salazar says the system is fine as it is, citing as proof the split control of the House and Senate and a 4-3 Republican-Democrat representation in Colorado’s congressional caucus.

Critics of the existing mapping process say it fails to shake up the status quo. The way maps are drawn protects incumbents, gives too much power to party brass, and makes it hard for new folks to enter the political process.

Who’s behind Initiatives 122 and 123?

The two latest measures were filed by Rob DuRay, who once worked with the progressive group New Era Colorado to involve young people in the political process, and Katina Banks, a celebrated attorney now with Urban Fulfillment Services, a mortgage fulfillment company, and a former chair of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

DuRay says the current system works but could include more everyday people. DuRay said they want a system that is less partisan, as reflected by the commission’s membership, which he said better represents the state.

What do these initiatives do?

Initiatives 122 and 123 would set up nine-member panels to draw congressional and legislative maps.

So tell me more about Initiative 122.

Under Initiative 122, drawing congressional maps would shift from the General Assembly to a panel of three Democrats, three Republicans and three unaffiliated voters. General Assembly leadership and the governor would choose the Democrats and Republicans. The Chief Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court would chose the unaffiliated members.

After that, the maps must take into account several factors, in no particular order: preserving county, city or town boundaries, preserving “communities of interest,” including ethnic, cultural, economic, geographic or demographic factors, keeping districts compact and creating competitive districts wherever possible.

A current law states congressional districts must be relatively equal in size and conform to the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

What’s the Voting Rights Act?

The Voting Rights Act requires states and the federal government to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments as they apply to people of color. These amendments ensure people of color have the same access to due process in court as anyone else. The amendments bans racial discrimination in the voting process. Prior to the Voting Rights Act, people of color were forced to take literacy tests to vote.

Champions of Initiative 122 say their measure would conform to these constitutional laws.

What’s up with Initiative 123?

Under Initiative 123, a nine-member commission would be tasked with drawing the state House and Senate district maps. Members could not participate in the congressional redistricting commission. Four members would be appointed by the leadership of the General Assembly, two by the governor and three by the Supreme Court.

The group would include three Democrats, three Republicans and three unaffiliated voters. At least one member would have to live west of the Continental Divide, ensuring that half of the state would have a voice in a political process rural dwellers say is too dominated by Front Range urbanites.

The measure doesn’t designate how the commission would draw its maps, leaving it up to current state law.

For both measures, maps would have to be approved by a supermajority of six members.

Why propose other measures?

Ulibarri, a critic of Initiative 107, said the latest two measures were written to “make sure people weren’t duped into voting for 107.”

What’s the difference between the measures?

Under Initiative 122, a Denver District Court judge would make the final decision on the congressional map. On Initiative 123, the Colorado Supreme Court would make that decision.

Under Initiative 107, the legislative map would go to the state Supreme Court. But there’s no identified arbiter that would decide how to break a deadlock on the congressional map.

Competitiveness, which is desirable to those who say a split legislature and Congressional delegation is a good thing, is defined in Initiatives 122 and 123 as the likelihood of a district flipping between major parties in a decade, based on voting patterns.

Competitiveness is required under Initiative 107, but it isn’t defined.

Initiative 107 also calls for minimal disruption of prior district boundaries, which some voting rights advocates claim would maintain the status quo and incumbency.

What do Initiative 107’s sponsors think of the new measures?

Curry said 107 backers were disappointed that another set of measures had been introduced for what they say is one purpose: “To try to deceive and confuse Colorado voters.”

What do Initiative 107’s critics say about the new measures?

Of the two new ballot measures, Ulibarri is supportive. He likes that the ballot measures keep what works in the current system.

Adding in new voices and impartial appointees is an improvement, he said.

“But we wouldn’t be at this point if there hadn’t been an initiative that was so destructive and harmful and limiting to people of Colorado,” Ulibarri said.

Salazar hasn’t changed his mind about the value of changing the process, even with the two new measures.

Said Salazar: They’re a waste of time and resources.

Which measure should I support?

Read them carefully, follow the news about them here at The Colorado Independent, and decide for yourself.

 

Photo credit: Tactical Technology, Creative Commons, Flickr

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