Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told local activists and elected officials Saturday that although Colorado voters passed redistricting measures intended to prevent partisan gerrymandering, the fight for fair elections is not over here.
“This needs to be a movement,” Holder said, “not just a moment.”
Holder, who served in the Obama administration, held a similar event over a year ago in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood to stump for Amendments Y and Z, the new redistricting measures. He returned today as part of a larger effort to ensure the new redistricting process is carried out correctly.
Redistricting follows the once-every-decade U.S. Census. The population count is the starting point for drawing the boundaries of Congressional and legislative districts, and for the distribution of government funding.
Saturday’s roundtable was hosted by All on the Line, a national campaign of the National Redistricting Action Fund (NRAF), which Holder chairs. NRAF is an affiliate of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which earlier this year absorbed Obama’s Organizing for Action political organization. The group’s main focus is to promote redistricting reform and participation in the 2020 census.
In Colorado, the effort is headed by Olivia Mendoza, the state director of All on the Line. Previously, Mendoza has served in minority advocacy positions, notably as the director of the Minority Business Office at the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade and as the executive director of the Colorado Latino Leadership Advocacy & Research Agency.
“I am your new best friend,” Mendoza told the crowd, “because I think that’s the commitment that it’s going to take from all of us to make sure that the census is executed accurately and that we keep the commission independent. It’s going to take a village.”
Mendoza will be “their eyes” on the coming redistricting processes, Holder told The Colorado Independent.
“If you care about sane gun laws, if you care about a woman’s right to choose, if you care about protecting the right of the vote, if you care about fair immigration laws, if you care about a whole variety of things,” Holder told the group, “you are affected by gerrymandering.”
The observation was met with nods of approval from the crowd of about 30. Activists and local officials spoke of how difficult it is to get the public to care about something as wonky as redistricting reform.
“From my perspective, over the years in the community, they don’t give a goddamn about census or redistricting because they’re struggling,” Nita Gonzales, a noted community activist, said. For this work to be done correctly, she said, it must be done by the communities affected.
An Amendments X and Y refresher
Amendments X and Y dramatically change the way we draw political maps in Colorado.
Previously, redistricting maps were drawn by the legislature and approved by a panel of 11. The governor, the state Supreme Court chief justice, and legislative leaders chose panelists in previous years. This old system, critics argued, allowed for members of one party to dominate the board, ensuring partisanship infected the process.
With the passage of Y and Z, two commissions made up of 12 members –– four Democrats, four Republicans, and four unaffiliated voters –– will take over for the state legislature in 2021 and define the political boundaries of Colorado. To approve a map, a supermajority of eight commission members, including two unaffiliated voters, would have to sign off.
The new redistricting laws also give a lot of power — and new tasks — to the nonpartisan Legislative Council staff, which will help come up with initial maps.
State Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, a Democrat serving parts of Adams County, expressed concerns at the roundtable about the impending redistricting commissions.
“I supported Y and Z, but it really, fundamentally, changes how we do redistricting,” Benavidez told Holder.
While she conceded that partisanship has been at play in the past, Benavidez asked Holder whether he has any concerns about how well the future commissions might represent communities of color.
Districts need to be contiguous, relatively compact and they need to take into account communities of interest (commonly defined as social, cultural, racial, ethnic, and economic interests common to the population of an area), he said.
“If at the end of the redistricting process — however it happens — communities of interests did not get that which they were entitled to, and which the Voting Rights Act mandates, we would be against that,” he said.
Still, Holder said he is optimistic that Colorado’s new process will result in fair maps, noting that similar commissions in California and Arizona “have worked out pretty well.”
“I suspect that it will be fine but we want to make sure there is transparency, and that there is surveillance of what it is that they are doing,” Holder added. “Those are the types of things we’ll try to bring through our organization.”
On the line: billions in federal funding and a seat in the U.S. House
At the Saturday roundtable, held at Servicios De La Raza, a social services nonprofit, the former attorney general did not mince words about the GOP’s use of redistricting to solidify power.
“Republicans used their power in 2011 to draw, in a whole variety of states, these gerrymandered districts such that no matter how good the candidate, no matter how well-financed, a Democrat simply can’t win,” Holder told the group.
“You cheat when you gerrymander, you cheat when you suppress votes, you cheat when you purge voter rolls,” Holder said. “If you don’t think that Stacy Abrams was cheated out of the governorship in Georgia, you know, you need a drug test.”
In the same month that Colorado passed Amendments X and Y, Abrams lost in a contentious election for Georgia governor. Abrams was running against Republican Brian Kemp, who was serving as the Georgia’s secretary of state at the time, allowing him the ability to make decisions, such as voter-roll purges, that critics say swung the election in his own favor.
Because the census determines how much federal funding Colorado receives as well as whether it gains another seat in Congress, a count in which immigrants, children, African Americans and other historically undercounted groups remain undercounted, would mean the state will take a hit in future federal funding, Holder said.
Nearly $900 billion in annual federal funding is distributed based on the census’s data. In years past, Colorado’s share has been about $13 billion a year.
And the fact is, Holder said Saturday, it is unlikely that the 2020 census is going to a full and fair count.
“The Trump Administration is not going to try to conduct a fair census,” he said. “You will find that in communities of color, in immigrant communities, in poor communities, there will be an undercount.”
Holder said the fight will be to mitigate the administration’s efforts as much as possible, and to make up for the deficits in the census through a redistricting process that is fair.
Republicans have accused his campaign’s efforts of being an effort to gerrymander for Democrats, he said. When they do, he points to Colorado.
“We control the governorship, we control both houses of the legislature,” he said. “If we wanted to gerrymander, we could do it here in Colorado. We have the power.”