A galaxy of power brokers from across Colorado’s political spectrum is fueling two ballot measures intended to end gerrymandering in this purple state.
Called Fair Maps Colorado, the campaign counts as supporters Gov. John Hickenlooper and four predecessors, along with groups and personalities from the state’s progressive left and conservative right. Former GOP California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is campaigning for the measures in Colorado, saying they would “terminate gerrymandering,” and Barack Obama’s ex-attorney general, Eric Holder, also swung through and put his support behind them. Just this week, actress Jennifer Lawrence of “The Hunger Games” fame sent out a video championing the Colorado ballot measure.
Amendments Y and Z — Y for Congress and Z for the state legislature — are on a ballot filled with 11 other questions. Together Y and Z would change the way Colorado draws and approves district lines for elected offices by making the map-making panel more non-partisan.
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 several states. The U.S. Supreme Court this year sidestepped a question about whether the practice is constitutional. Sophisticated computer technology now allows parties to analyze voter data and micro-target down to a single household when drawing district maps.
In August, a panel of federal judges ruled North Carolina’s congressional districts were unconstitutionally gerrymandered to give Republicans an advantage over Democrats there.
During an August campaign launch event for Amendments Y and Z at History Colorado in Denver, Hickenlooper appeared with Democratic and Republican officials, flanked by members of groups representing all stripes of the political rainbow. Kent Thiry, 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.
Colorado’s ‘remarkable’ grand bargain
In March, two groups that were readying for a major battle over the redistricting process on this fall’s ballot 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.
“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.”
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 its booming population, Colorado is poised to get a new congressional seat after the 2020 redistricting.
Where gerrymandering has typically occurred in Colorado is among the 65 state House seats, according to some Republicans who sat on the latest redistricting commission in 2011. In the state Senate, only seven of 35 seats are competitive, former Democratic Sen. Ron Tupa has argued.
At the congressional level, Colorado’s districts are fairly compact, unlike North Carolina’s, which have been carved up into the snake-like districts that judges say favor Republicans.
Right now, gerrymandering is a hot button nationally. The practice can have an institutional effect of diluting voting power. If you’re a Democrat in a district drawn in all directions — designed to cram in as many Republicans as needed 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.
In Colorado, four potential measures were on a collision course for the November ballot. Campaigns were gearing up for a fight over whose plan would put the cleanest stake through the heart of the gerrymander in a state with a bitter history of the major parties accusing each other of manipulating district lines to serve their own interests.
But after roughly 70 drafts, countless phone calls, and months of give-and-take meetings — many at the offices of Kent Thiry — the two groups pulled their competing measures from consideration and proposed two alternatives.
The new effort, Fair Maps Colorado, is a true strange-bedfellows coalition.
On one end are conservatives Frank McNulty, Allen Philp, and Josh Penry, who led a 2016 redistricting campaign that collapsed amid criticism and a state Supreme Court decision blocking it. Philp, a Fair Districts Colorado 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 is Ellen Dumm, a consultant for progressive causes, who wrangled initial opposition to the Fair Districts Plan with the support of groups including 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 such as Kathleen Curry, a one-time Democratic lawmaker who 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.”
What would Y and Z 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, not an independent commission, draws congressional maps. A panel that approves legislative maps in Colorado is made up 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 board, which critics say allows partisanship to become a big part of the process.
Under the proposed two ballot measures, the process would drastically change. Both follow similar criteria.
Under the new proposals, instead of 11 members, a commission for drawing the congressional maps would have 12 people — 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.
With some exceptions, anyone 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 would be responsible for screening the applicants and deciding who gets kicked off the island in a civic rendition of the reality TV show Survivor. (Those barred from applying for a seat on the commission include anyone who ran for or served in Congress or who ran for or served in the Statehouse in the past five years, or who was paid by a campaign committee in the past three years. Anyone who has been a lobbyist or a federal, state or local public official within the past three years also is barred.)
Judging by the size of the applicant pools specified in the proposals, the folks who came up with them must really think people will want to be on this commission. 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 in civic groups and organizations.
From each group of 50, the judges then use a lottery system to pick six. 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. Majority and minority leaders from both chambers get to peek at the applicants and choose 10 apiece for four pools of qualified partisan applicants. 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. The commission must 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. Commissioners and staff would be subject to Colorado’s open records laws.
What Y and Z would do beyond creating a super commission
They would protect Colorado’s minorities by enshrining language from the federal Voting Rights Act in the Colorado Constitution.
“That is something no state has done,” said lawyer Mark Grueskin, who worked on the measure on behalf of People Not Politicians.
The amendments stipulate district lines have to preserve communities of interest, political subdivisions, and cities and towns as much as possible.
Staff for the new independent commission must also come up with a report that explains how they determined competitiveness. That’s also a first in the nation, Grueskin said.
The Colorado Supreme Court would have to approve all maps unless it finds the commission abused its discretion in applying — or not applying — the criteria.
Who is funding the campaign?
As of Oct. 15, Fair Maps Colorado had raised nearly $4 million.
The top contributions 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.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave $500,000. The National Education Association gave $700,000. The State Engagement Fund, a nonprofit with a Washington, D.C., address that doesn’t have to disclose its donors, gave $500,000. Ben Walton of the WalMart fortune gave $250,000. Michael Shannon, former CEO of Vail Associates, gave $100,000.
Another 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.
Do anyone oppose the measures?
Yep. It’s not all kumbaya in Colorado.
Colorado writer Ari Armstrong has raised alarms that the measures block members of minor parties and third parties, such as the Greens or Libertarians, from sitting on the map-approving commissions. “Such discrimination is wrong, unnecessary, and an affront to the moral-legal principle that all people should be treated equally under the law,” he said. “As bad as gerrymandering is, legal discrimination is worse.” Backers of the measures argue minor-party voters make up only 2 percent of the state’s voting population, and the measures expand the number of people who can get involved in the redistricting process.
Arguments against the measures that appear in Colorado’s “Blue Book,” a state government publication mailed to all active registered voters, notes that under the proposed plans “the commission is staffed by government employees who are not accountable to the voters, and they may end up drawing the final map if the commission cannot reach an agreement.”
Shirley Jin, part of the money-in-politics team at the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Colorado, who says she is only speaking for herself and not League, wonders what kind of advanced software might be used to help draw the maps, and dislikes the provision that says if the commission can’t agree on a map, then the third staff-drawn map automatically goes to the High Court. She would rather the Colorado Supreme Court look at them all and decide the best.
“To me, the very worst thing is that the Colorado Supreme Court’s hands are tied,” she said.
Also, it should be noted not everyone who opposed the initial Fair Districts Plan is on board with the compromise. A disagreement at the 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 said.
Toni Larson, president of the League of Women Voters Colorado, said Jin and Crow disagree with the League’s position on the amendments, and that the two women do not represent or speak on behalf of the organization.
Are the bipartisan-backed plans a slam-dunk at the ballot box?
Both Grueskin, the lawyer for People Not Politicians, and Buescher, 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.
This measure will need 55 percent of the vote to pass, and Coloradans can be an unpredictable bunch.
John Herrick and Shannon Mullane contributed campaign finance reporting to this story.