Voters in November will decide whether Colorado should drastically change the way it draws political lines

Gov. John Hickenlooper embraces Kent Thiry, CEO of the Denver-based kidney dialysis group DaVita, during the signing of a referred measure to reform redistricting in Colorado at the state Capitol on Wednesday. Photo by John Herrick

Colorado’s Democratic governor has thrown his weight behind two statewide ballot measures that, if passed by voters in November, would change how political lines are drawn and give unaffiliated voters more of a voice in the process.

“This is normally a full-contact sport,” Gov. John Hickenlooper said Wednesday, a reference to Colorado’s partisan battles over redistricting in past decades that have left Republicans and Democrats embittered about how the legislative maps are created.

The same might also have been said about initial proposals to change the way Colorado draws its political maps, which began with crossed swords and ended in a handshake.

The proposal Hickenlooper is backing, known as Fair Maps Colorado, is the culmination of a months-long dogfight between different civic and political groups, much behind the scenes drama, and an eventual grand bargain. The next U.S. Census is in 2020, and because of Colorado’s booming population, the state could get an eighth congressional seat. Input from voters in this swing state on redistricting reform comes as the U.S. Supreme Court decides a case about whether gerrymandering for partisan gain is unconstitutional and several other states try and tackle it in their own ways. 

In Colorado, initially, two groups emerged to propose warring ballot measures over how best Colorado should draw its political districts. One group called itself Fair Districts Colorado, which counted conservative political operatives in its ranks. Another called itself People Not Politicians, a coalition that included progressive groups, voting rights groups, and minority groups.

But in March, after 70 drafts, countless phone calls, and months of give-and-take meetings — many held at the offices of Kent Thiry, the wealthy CEO of the Denver-based kidney dialysis company DaVita and a champion for unaffiliated voters in the political process — a potentially nasty fight was averted. Both groups pulled their competing measures from consideration and stood united behind two new ones on which they’ve both agreed.

At the time it was a stunning compromise that brought together progressives and conservatives, voting rights groups and minority communities.

Related: Colorado’s grand bargain to create a national model for redistricting

Then, at the end of the legislative session, which came to a close May 9, Colorado’s divided legislature unanimously approved putting the proposed redistricting measures that mirrored the ones proposed by the merged groups directly onto the November ballot. Lawmakers did so after the group Fair Maps Colorado, the latest name of the united group, approached leadership about the idea. 

Once lawmakers passed the referred measures, the groups involved in the earlier ballot measures again backed away from their own ballot-measure proposals and will now instead support the measures referred by the legislature, according to Fair Maps Colorado. The group now will campaign for the measures statewide. 

The move effectively collapses two divisive and massively expensive campaigns into one united effort. Meanwhile, instead of having to clear the hurdle of persuading enough voters to sign petitions to qualify the measures for the ballot — especially under new laws that make doing so harder — Fair Maps Colorado now only has to persuade them to pass the measures in the fall.

So what would these ballot measures do?

At issue is the way Colorado draws its political boundaries for its seven members of Congress and 100 members of the state legislature – a redistricting process that takes place after each 10-year census. At its heart, the proposed changes to the state’s constitution would cleave away the influence of partisans in the map-drawing-and-approving process and add more influence of those not affiliated with a party.

The Fair Maps plan is made up of two ballot measures — one dealing with congressional districts, and the other with statehouse districts, though both would follow similar criteria.

Currently, it’s the legislature that draws congressional maps. The new proposal would give authority to draw congressional districts to a 12-member commission made up of four Democrats, four Republicans, and four unaffiliated voters. To approve a map, a supermajority of eight commission members, including two unaffiliated members, would have to agree.

Currently, state legislative maps are approved by a panel of 11 members appointed by the governor, the state Supreme Court chief justice, and legislative leaders. That means members of one party or another can dominate the map-approving panel, which critics say allows partisanship to influence the process.

Under the ballot measure proposal, more influence would be given to unaffiliated members in the map-approving process by giving them more power on the commission. Seats on the new 12-member panel would be open to Coloradans who haven’t run for or served in Congress or the legislature in the past five years or were paid by a campaign committee in the past three years. Someone who has been a lobbyist or a federal, state or local public official within the past three years also couldn’t serve.

Applicants would be selected by a panel of three retired judges from different political backgrounds chosen by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court.

The three-judge panel would start with a pool of 300 applications from members of the Democratic Party, 300 from the Republican Party, and 450 from those who are unaffiliated. Then, in what sounds like a civic rendition of the reality TV show “Survivor,”  all but 50 in each group would get kicked off the proverbial island. The 150 lucky applicants who make the cut must show the judges they have analytical thinking skills, an ability to be impartial and to promote consensus, and experience as active participants in civic groups and organizations. From each group of 50, the judges then would pick six commissioners totally at random. Two must be Democrats, two Republicans, and two unaffiliated. These six must live in different congressional districts.

The remaining six on this panel of 12 would be chosen with some input from elected officials — but only a little. Colorado’s Senate majority and minority leaders, along with the House’s majority and minority leaders, would get to peek at the applicants and choose 10 for each group for four pools of qualified partisan applicants. The judges choose one from each pool — two Democrats and two Republicans — to serve on the commission. The judges decide on the final two unaffiliated commissioners from the applicant pool.

The goal of this protracted selection process is to ensure that the commission is as diverse as possible. Judges can also interview applicants before appointing them. At least one commissioner must live west of the Continental Divide.

Once the commission is chosen, nonpartisan legislative staff would assist it and help draw maps, taking input from anyone. The commission would have to hold at least three public hearings in each congressional district. If someone is being paid to come up with an idea for a map for the commission to review, he or she would have to register as a lobbyist and disclose who he or she is working for.

Commission staff members would not be allowed to talk about potential maps outside of public hearings except with each other. Commissioners and staff also would be subject to Colorado’s open records laws.

The measures would protect minority groups in Colorado in a way that could outlive the Voting Rights Act if the federal law is further chipped away by the courts or Congress by enshrining VRA language in Colorado’s Constitution, says lawyer Mark Grueskin who worked on the measure on behalf of People Not Politicians. “That is something no state has done,” Grueskin says. 

The proposed ballot measures also do something else. They define competitiveness as a district having a reasonable potential for its member of Congress or its legislative representative to flip political parties at least once every 10 years based on past election results, voter registration data, and evidence-based analysis. Staff for the proposed new independent commissions must also come up with a report that explains how they determined competitiveness in a map, something Grueskin says would be unique in the nation.

Under the proposals, district lines would have to preserve communities of interest, political subdivisions, and cities and towns as much as possible. And, because there are state and federal criteria to meet, the Colorado Supreme Court would ultimately have to approve all maps.

Both Grueskin, who represented People not Politicians, and Bernie Beuscher, who  represented the Fair Districts Colorado group, said if voters pass the measures, Colorado could be a model for the nation.

‘Dramatically improve the system’

On Wednesday, Hickenlooper appeared alongside Thiry and others for a news conference at the state Capitol in Denver where he spoke in favor of the measures, saying they would give a voice to independent voters and ensure political districts are fair and balanced.

In Colorado, more voters — 1.2 million of them — choose not to join a political party than are registered Democrats or Republicans.

Thiry suggested Colorado is one of the only states whose legislature — “a bitterly competitive state legislature,” as he called it — passed bipartisan reform to take on political gerrymandering.

If the proposals pass in the fall, political maps “may not be drawn to dilute the electoral influence of racial and language minority groups,” said Democratic House Speaker Crisanta Duran.

Republican Senate President Kevin Grantham said the measures won’t make either liberals or conservatives warm and fuzzy. But, he said, “It will dramatically improve the system in ways that will make our legislative processes work better.”

Because of a new voter-approved law passed in 2016, known as “Raise the bar,” the measures will require voters to pass them by 55 percent or higher in November.


 John Herrick contributed to this story. Photo: Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper hugs Kent Thiry during a May 16 ceremony at the Capitol in Denver about the referred ballot measures on redistricting reform, by John Herrick.