As GOP El Paso County Commissioners redraw their own district lines today, progressive activists have a message: We’re watching

UPDATE: Members of the El Paso County Commission are set to vote on the new district lines today

Democrats in Colorado’s heaviest Republican county are ringing alarm bells as a board of five GOP public officials sets out to redraw their own district lines.

Local government redistricting might typically be yawner, but El Paso County’s comes after a Democrat in November came within striking distance of winning a seat— which would have been a first in 40 years. Meanwhile, there’s a greater public scrutiny on redistricting in general in the wake of this week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down North Carolina’s congressional lines because they relied too much on race as a factor.

In Colorado, there are some laws county commissioners must follow for how they draw their districts, like keeping them compact and within certain population levels, but they also have wide discretion.

Basically the chief executives of a county, these public officials also have enormous power as policymakers and administrators in their respective areas and they control large budgets. County commission posts are also high-paying government jobs, and candidates running for them have no contribution limits for how much money they can raise in their campaigns.

El Paso County, which encompasses Colorado Springs, redraws its commissioner district lines about every two years because of the area’s booming population growth. And it is the county’s five commissioners, all Republicans, who vote on how those maps look. Each of them make between $87,300 and $113,490 per year.

Tomorrow, Thursday, May 25, those commissioners will review three options for their new district maps, according to an agenda item on the county’s website. And it won’t be without controversy. 

News that the county already drew up three options without public input irks local elections watchdog Gary Fornander who works on elections issues in Colorado Springs for Common Cause of Colorado.

Two years ago, he says, the county clerk reached out to members of the public before drawing up new maps. But not this time. “We cannot find that they’ve done any outreach to anyone,” Fornander told The Colorado Independent. “They certainly haven’t to us.”

El Paso County Clerk and Recorder spokeswoman Mattie Albert confirmed County Clerk Chuck Broerman only consulted with those who will vote on the maps.

“He spoke with each of the commissioners about their different needs and concerns,” Albert said. State law, she says, states the primary goal in redistricting county commissioner lines is to maintain a generally equal population distribution. Each district has about 130,000 people as of 2015.

Albert said 2015 was the first year the county clerk reached out to interested stakeholders early in the process. But the clerk didn’t this time around because he didn’t have time, given the large increase in voters coming on the rolls from the big 2016 elections.  

“We would like to reiterate that the commissioner district proposals reflect minor, technical changes of a few precincts, and that the goal of the proposals is to maintain an equal population distribution between the districts while adhering as best as possible to natural geographical boundaries,” she said in a statement.

After the county clerk presents his three map options tomorrow, the public can weigh in on them for the next 30 days. (The map options will be available online here.)

Republicans in El Paso County outnumber Democrats by about two to one with 162,733 registered GOP members and 84,607 Democrats, according to the most recent data from the Secretary of State. Unaffiliated voters make up about 135,000.

A Democrat has not won an election for El Paso County Commission since the 1970s, El Paso County Democratic Party Chairwoman Electra Johnson said. The way the district lines are drawn does not help, she added. “It would be more representative to have neighborhoods connected downtown and the northern part of the county represented by one commissioner.”

Johnson plans to speak at a protest at 9 a.m. tomorrow outside the county commissioner meeting at Centennial Hall to bring more public attention to the process.

During the 2016 November elections, Johnson herself gave El Paso County Republicans a scare when she ran for an open 3rd District seat on the county commission and came within about six percentage points of beating her Republican rival, stunning political observers in the area.

Recently, a wave election for Colorado Springs City Council swept in a more moderate to progressive majority to the once-conservative body. Some local progressives see a changing city as the area grows, perhaps beginning to shuck off some of its reputation as a conservative stronghold.

One local progressive group, Unite Colorado Springs, is helping organize tomorrow’s protest with local Democratic Party activists outside the commissioner meeting to draw attention to the redistricting process.

“I think it’s important that those of us who are concerned about these types of things, those of us who really are paying attention to these types of things, make our presence known,” says Unite’s Ryan Barry.

“Activists hope to use their presence to draw attention to the board’s continued gerrymandering and to inspire the community to participate in this comment period,” reads a statement from the El Paso County Democratic Party, adding, “the activists hope that scrutiny from the public will prevent the county government from again gerrymandering the commissioner districts without input from the people of El Paso County.”

El Paso County Clerk Broerman said in a statement he hopes people will see from the three options he’ll unveil tomorrow that his office “strove for balance in proposing changes that reflect the natural boundaries of our growing county and maintaining consistency between communities.”

Johnson wants to make sure the public is aware of the potential redistricting has to make the districts, especially the 3rd, less competitive.

“My message is our representatives are elected to represent all of us,” she says.

Photo by Sergey Norin for Creative Commons in Flickr.