A bipartisan group seeking to change the way Colorado draws its political boundaries has moved one step closer to its goal — and toward a likely battle before the state’s highest court.
Fair Districts Colorado can begin gathering voter signatures to put its redistricting measures on the 2018 ballot, a state panel ruled Wednesday. It’s the latest hurdle cleared by a group of political heavyweights who say they want to take partisanship out of the once-every-10-years redistricting process.
At stake is the balance of power in Colorado for decades to come. The statehouse is currently split with Republicans holding a one-seat majority in the Senate and Democrats controlling the House by several. How district lines are drawn can make winning for one party easier or harder, and over the years the process in Colorado has led to bitter court fights and bruising battles between the state’s two largest political parties.
In Colorado, the legislature currently carves up the districts represented by the state’s seven members of Congress. An 11-member panel of Republicans and Democrats chosen by the governor, Supreme Court Justice, and legislative leaders approves the districts for members of the state legislature.
Fair Districts wants to change that. Part of its plan calls for a more independent 12-member commission made up of four Democrats, four Republicans, and four people not affiliated with a major political party to approve district lines for the legislature. A similar commission would do the same for Congress. The idea is to have more representation in the process for voters in Colorado who choose to remain independent from a political party. Unaffiliated voters here make up the state’s largest voting population.
The push in Colorado comes as similar proposals are popping up nationwide and as the U.S. Supreme Court considers the question of whether partisan gerrymandering— the practice of drawing political lines to favor one political party over another— is constitutional.
But a resistance movement against the plan is also gathering.
On Dec. 6, Denver elections attorney Mark Grueskin, who has represented Democrats in previous redistricting battles, unsuccessfully argued to the state Title Board, which approves ballot measure language, that Fair Districts shouldn’t be able to move forward with gathering signatures. He is concerned language in the plan isn’t simpatico with the group’s stated purpose of trying to create more competitive districts. If Fair Districts is successful, Grueskin worries race could become a basis for district line-drawing, which he says would be a “radical departure” from the way redistricting has been done in Colorado. Attorney Bill Hobbs, arguing for Fair Districts, says that’s the opposite of the group’s intent.
Grueskin says he will appeal the Title Board’s ruling to the state Supreme Court and make his argument there. It could take months to resolve, and before that Fair Districts is unlikely to begin trying to gather signatures, Hobbs says. Grueskin, meanwhile, teased the possibility that a different group in Colorado might put forward a counterproposal to compete with the Fair Districts plan. He declined to discuss details.
Following the Title Board hearing, Common Cause of Colorado came out against the Fair Districts campaign.
The state group, whose national chapter keeps an eye on redistricting around the country, doesn’t like that the Fair District’s proposal calls for partisan politicians to appoint most of the redistricting commissioners— which is also how it works now— among other issues involving transparency and scant buy-in from minority communities.
“While the measures do include a more neutral selection process for the unaffiliated or independent members, that change is not enough to eliminate the overall partisan selection process of the majority of the members,” Common Cause Colorado wrote in a statement.
Hobbs called the elections watchdog group’s opposition disappointing because he says Fair Districts engaged with Common Cause and incorporated some of its suggestions into the plan. “We really tried to incorporate their concerns and unfortunately they still are not on board,” he says. “Everything that we’re doing is an improvement on the current process.”
Debates about partisanship have dogged the Fair Districts campaign from its start.
An early version of its plan allowed the state’s two largest political parties to choose a majority of the members on the proposed new independent redistricting commission. Critics, like Grueskin, worried doing so would actually increase partisanship. Political parties are accountable to party insiders while elected officials are accountable to voters, he said. Fair Districts later changed course and gave the appointing power to legislative leaders.
Fair Districts also came in for criticism for not having enough buy-in from minority groups, though the group said it made a good-faith effort in its outreach. Since the group launched, two prominent Latino Democrats, former Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia and ex-lawmaker Abel Tapia, pulled their support from the plan. Garcia said the Fair Districts campaign and its efforts are “more controversial and potentially partisan” than he realized.
Along the way, the backgrounds of some involved in the effort have also drawn scrutiny.
Last year, a group called End Gerrymandering Now tried unsuccessfully to put a similar redistricting proposal on the ballot but was blocked on a technicality by the state supreme court. Its backers included former GOP House Speaker Frank McNulty and former GOP Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, Republican redistricting operative Alan Philp as well as former Democratic Secretary of State Bernie Buescher, PR consultant Rich Coolidge, and Kathleen Curry, a one-time Democratic lawmaker who later became unaffiliated. All of them are working on this year’s Fair Districts Colorado proposal.
In response to early criticism, Fair Districts made some other changes to its proposal between the time the campaign launched in September and this week’s Title Board hearing. Beyond the change to give appointing power to lawmakers instead of parties, having the non-major party members of the commissions ultimately chosen by a random lottery after screening by retired judges instead of whittled down by partisans as the group initially proposed, was an additional tweak to the plan.
Another change this year is the support Fair Districts counts from wealthy powerbroker Kent Thiry, the CEO of the Denver-based kidney dialysis company DaVita. In recent years, Thiry has positioned himself as an advocate for Colorado’s 1.3 million unaffiliated voters. Last year he backed a successful statewide ballot measure that allows unaffiliated voters to participate in party primaries.
In another big move, Fair Districts gained the backing of the League of Women Voters of Colorado, though that wasn’t without drama. A split among leadership over whether to support the plan ended with the departure of the group’s president, Nancy Crow.
“The fallout was I resigned from the board,” Crow told The Colorado Independent this week. “I lost support.” She says she feels strongly that the League is being used to lend credibility to a redistricting plan she worries could be part of a national strategy to turn more state legislatures red.
The state League’s new president is Toni Larson, who has been working with the Fair Districts campaign for nearly a year. On Dec. 7, the state League’s board voted to fully support the Fair Districts plan, she says, and to encourage its local chapters to help gather signatures for it if and when they are able.
Says Larson: “We have decided that we are thoroughly behind Fair Districts Colorado.”