Last week, a galaxy of powerbrokers kicked off a campaign to persuade 55 percent of the Colorado electorate to say ‘Yes’ in November to two ballot measures they say will end gerrymandering.
Called Fair Maps Colorado, the campaign says it has the backing of all five living Colorado governors* and from groups and personalities from the state’s progressive left and conservative right.
The two measures — one for Congress and the other for the state legislature — are called Amendments Y and Z on the ballot. Together they would change the way Colorado draws and approves district lines for politicians by giving commissioners on a map-making panel who are not affiliated with a political party more say in the process.
The move in Colorado comes as efforts to end the practice of drawing district lines to purposefully help one party over another, known as gerrymandering, are afoot in individual states. The U.S. Supreme Court this year sidestepped a question about whether the practice is constitutional. Sophisticated computer technology now allows people to analyze voter data and micro-target down to a single household when drawing district maps.
Just this week, a panel of federal judges ruled North Carolina’s congressional districts were unconstitutionally gerrymandered to give Republicans an advantage over Democrats.
During a campaign launch event at History Colorado in Denver last week, Gov. John Hickenlooper appeared with Democratic and Republican officials, flanked by members of groups from across the political spectrum. Kent Thiry, the wealthy CEO of the Denver-based kidney dialysis company DaVita, who has bankrolled successful recent statewide ballot measures, is also backing the proposals. Lawmakers earlier this year voted unanimously to put them directly on November’s ballot. But because of new rules, they will need a supermajority of 55 percent of the vote to pass.
How this measure got here was a remarkable grand bargain
In March, two groups that were readying for a major battle on this fall’s ballot over the redistricting process laid down their swords and joined forces in a compromise they say will end partisan gerrymandering and make Colorado a model for the nation.
The announcement of the negotiated pact between a group called Fair Districts Colorado and another called People Not Politicians was a stunning turnabout after six months of saber-rattling, and, at times, accusations of bad faith. Together, the coalition now calls itself Fair Maps Colorado.
The compromise meant the two groups joined behind two new proposed ballot measures to change Colorado’s Constitution.
“It’s truly a remarkable story of cooperation and goodwill,” said Bernie Buescher, a former Democratic Colorado secretary of state and a lawyer who worked on the deal. “Everybody had to put aside their lack of trust based on history and expectations.”
At issue is the way Colorado draws its political boundaries for members of Congress and the legislature, which takes place after each 10-year census. If conservatives, progressives, voting rights groups and minority communities back this effort and work successfully to pass it, Colorado could be seen as yet another test tube for state policy nationwide.
Right now, gerrymandering is flaring up on the national stage. The practice can have an institutional effect of diluting voting power. If you’re a Democrat packed into a district drawn in all directions and created to cram in so many Republicans as to keep a seat safe, you might wonder if your vote really counts. If you’re a Republican living in a district that was drawn to make it nearly impossible for a Republican to win, you might feel the same.
That’s why in neighboring Utah, a campaign raised nearly $1 million to get a redistricting measure on the ballot, and in Michigan, a group called Voters Not Politicians proposed a ballot measure it said would create a more independent redistricting commission. A bi-partisan effort called Clean Missouri in that state has its own ballot measure the coalition says would make drawing political lines less partisan. A group to take on gerrymandering is working to get a question on the ballot in Ohio, and Fair Districts PA is on the move in Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, Barack Obama, along with his former attorney general Eric Holder, has made redistricting reform his post-presidency cause.
Here in Colorado, four potential measures were on a collision course for the November ballot with campaigns gearing up to fight each other over whose plan would put the purest stake through the heart of the gerrymander in a state with a bitter history on the subject and where each major political party has accused the other of drawing lines to better serve its members.
But after roughly 70 drafts, countless phone calls, and months of give-and-take meetings — many held at the offices of Kent Thiry — the two groups pulled their competing measures from consideration and got behind two new ones on which they both now agree.
The new coalition, Fair Maps Colorado, makes a strange bedfellows coalition.
On one end of the political spectrum are Frank McNulty, Allen Philp, and Josh Penry who led an unsuccessful redistricting campaign in 2016 that collapsed amid criticism and was blocked by the state Supreme Court on a technicality. Philp, a Fair Districts pitchman, has been described as a “veteran Republican utility player — who among his many callings has been regional political director for the Republican National Committee and for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.”
On the other end of this new coalition is Ellen Dumm, a consultant for progressive causes, who wrangled initial opposition to the Fair Districts Plan and counted groups on her side like the ACLU of Colorado, Together We Will Colorado, Colorado People’s Alliance, Servicios de la Raza, COLOR, Mi Familia Vota, NAACP Colorado Montana Wyoming State Area Conference, and One Colorado. Joe Zimlich, a campaign co-chair for Fair Maps Colorado, is CEO of Bohemian Group. (The Bohemian Foundation, a separate entity within the group, is among The Independent’s donors.)
In the middle are unaffiliated voters like Kathleen Curry, a former Democratic lawmaker who became unaffiliated and helped spearhead the Fair Districts effort. Then there’s Thiry, who lately has been styling himself as something of a voice for the state’s 1.2 million unaffiliated voters. In 2016 he bankrolled a successful ballot measure to allow unaffiliated voters to participate in party primaries. The new redistricting proposals make sure unaffiliated voters are represented in the process of drawing new district maps.
“This is a victory for compromise and common sense over partisanship and the broken status quo to the benefit of all Coloradans,” Thiry said in a statement. “This was a tough issue with high stakes, but we are proud to have worked through a tough negotiation and built a smart and balanced plan.”
If passed, the measures would change the way political lines are drawn for Colorado’s seven members of Congress and its 100 state lawmakers. After each 10-year Census, a process begins of re-carving up these districts based on population growth. Because of our booming population, Colorado is poised to get a new congressional seat after the 2020 redistricting.
So, what would these ballot measures actually do? First, it’s a game of commissioner Survivor
The measures marry parts of ballot measures that were earlier proposed by Fair Districts and People Not Politicians.
Currently, the legislature draws congressional maps, not an independent commission. A panel that approves legislative maps in Colorado is made up of 11 members. These people are appointed by the governor, the state Supreme Court chief justice, and legislative leaders. That means members of one party or another can dominate the board, which critics say allows partisanship to become a big part of the process.
Under the new proposed ballot measures, that would drastically change. One has to do with Congress, the other has to do with the legislature, but both follow similar criteria.
Under the new proposals, instead of 11 members, a commission for drawing the congressional maps would have 12 people on it and would be 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.
Anyone, with some restrictions, could apply to become a commissioner. Commissioners would be selected by a panel of three retired judges of different political backgrounds (who, in turn, would be selected by the chief justice of the State Supreme Court). The three-judge panel is responsible for screening the applicants and basically deciding who gets kicked off the island in a civic rendition of the reality TV show Survivor. (Anyone who ran for or served in Congress or the Statehouse in the past five years or was paid by a campaign committee in the past three years, could not apply, depending on the commission, nor could someone who has been a lobbyist or a federal, state or local public official within the past three years.)
By the way, the folks who came up with this plan must really think people will want to be on this commission. The judges will 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.
The retired judges would then whittle those down to 50 apiece.
These 150 lucky Coloradans who make the cut must show the judges they have analytical thinking skills, an ability to be impartial and to promote consensus, and have experience as active participants in civic groups and organizations.
From each group of 50, the judges then pick six 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 come with some input from politicians — but only a little. Colorado’s Senate Majority and Minority Leaders, along with the House’s Majority and Minority Leaders, get to peek at the applicants and choose 10 apiece for four pools of qualified partisan applicants and who provide diversity on the commission. The judges choose one from each pool — two Democrats and two Republicans— to be on the commission.
The judges decide on the final two unaffiliated commissioners from the applicant pool. In the end, the goal is to ensure 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 it.
Commission staff members would not be allowed to talk about potential maps outside of public hearings except with each other, and commissioners and staff would be subject to Colorado’s open records laws.
Beyond creating this super commission, what else would these measures do?
They 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.
“That is something no state has done,” says lawyer Mark Grueskin who worked on the measure on behalf of People Not Politicians.
The measures also 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 new independent commission must also come up with a report that explains how they determined competitiveness in a map. “No other state in the country has anything like that,” Grueskin says.
Districts lines would have to preserve communities of interest, political subdivisions, and cities and towns as much as possible.
The Colorado Supreme Court would have to approve all maps.
Who is funding the campaign to pass it?
As of the end of July, Fair Maps Colorado had raised more than $700,000, according to state campaign finance data. As of September, it raised much more.
The top contributions so far have come from Thiry, and also Pat Stryker, who founded and serves on the board of directors of the Bohemian Foundation, which is among The Independent’s donors. Between them, they put in $1.2 million.
Also a top contributor is Action Now Initiative, which Governing magazine reported is funded by John Arnold, a former hedge-fund billionaire who focuses much of his attention and money on pension reform. A $200,000 contribution came from the Colorado Economic Leadership Fund, which The Denver Post reported in 2016 sought to elect Republicans to the Colorado Senate. Wealthy Colorado home-builder and GOP donor Larry Mizel’s MDC Holdings gave at least $100,000. Michael Fries, CEO of the large cable company Liberty Global, gave at least $25,000. Vail Resorts gave at least $25,000, and Fiber and bandwidth communications company Zayo Group gave at least $20,000. Joseph Zimlich of Bohemian Companies gave at least $10,000, as did a group called Education Reform Now Advocacy.
As for whom the campaign was paying as of July, it was spreading the money around to a variety of people and firms. Conservative talk radio host Jeff Crank’s Aegis Strategic was being paid for consulting, and so was Ellen Dumm. EIS Solutions, run by Josh Penry, was getting paid as was Jason Bertolacci’s BerBur firm. Boulder-based Harstad Strategic Research got tens of thousands for polling. OnSight Public Affairs is doing communications work for the campaign. Frank McNulty’s Square State Strategies group got paid for consulting and so did Lindsay Neil LLC and former State Sen. Jesse Ulibarri, among some others.
- Kent Thiry is bankrolling the campaign to draw support for the measures. He donated $600,000 to Fair Maps Colorado (Thiry also gave $219,000 to Fair Districts Colorado, which is also supporting the initiative).
- Billionaire and Democratic donor Pat Stryker also donated $600,000 to Fair Maps Colorado.
- The Action Now Initiative donated $268,000.
Fair Districts Colorado, another issue committee that supports Amendments Y and Z, received a total of $429,000. Top donors include Thiry and Let Colorado Vote, an issue committee. Your Vote Counts, another group backing the initiative, has received $232,000. The committee’s largest donor is America Votes, a 501(c)4 organization promoting “progressive issues.” The organization falls into the category of dark money donors because it does not have to disclose who funds it.
As of Sept. 4, Fair Maps Colorado has spent more than $1 million on media buys and advertising. The campaign is spreading the money around to a variety of people, firms and polling.
Are these bipartisan-backed plans a slam dunk at the ballot box?
Both Grueskin, the lawyer for People Not Politicians, and Beuscher, who lawyered for Fair Districts, said if voters pass the measures Colorado could be a model for the nation.
But getting constitutional questions passed in Colorado is harder than it used to be since voters passed a new law in 2016 that threw up hurdles to the process.
To get these measures passed will take a lot of money, time and on-the-ground activism.
Also, it should be noted not everyone who opposed the Fair Districts Plan is on board with the compromise. A disagreement at the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Colorado about whether to support the original Fair Districts Plan led to the departure of then-president Nancy Crow, who felt the League was being used to lend credibility to a redistricting idea she worried could be part of a national strategy to turn more state legislatures red. She’s not sold on the new compromise, either, and has been giving public talks, warning people about it. “We don’t have an egregious problem here that needed a constitutional amendment to fix,” she says.
Also, early drafts of the proposal used language saying four commissioners on the map-approving commissions were required to be non-major party members, leaving the door open to third-party members. But the language that will be on November’s ballot explicitly says members must be unaffiliated with “any” political party. That has at least one third-party in Colorado none too happy.
“We … as well as the Green Party, the Constitution Party — all of the minor parties — are all completely excluded,” says Wayne Harlos, chairman of the Colorado Libertarian Party. He said his members will talk about whether there’s any appetite for seeing if there’s any legal action they might take.
John Herrick and Shannon Mullane contributed campaign finance reporting to this story.
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said the campaign has the support of “all four” living governors. The campaign says it has the support of all five of them: John Hickenlooper, Bill Ritter, Bill Owens, Roy Romer and Dick Lamm.