Should voters pick their legislative representatives or should politicians pick their voters? Should congressional and legislative district boundaries – adjusted every 10 years after the Census – be drawn by partisans for partisans? Or should maps be drawn by a balanced, independent commission using nonpartisan staff who are obligated to use neutral, fair criteria?
Proposals were filed with the Colorado Title Board on Sept. 22 that will end the practice of gerrymandering legislative and congressional districts in Colorado. The League of Women Voters, along with a coalition of interested Coloradans, filed the proposals designed to stem the increasingly partisan process of drawing legislative districts in Colorado.
We have reached a point in our political discourse that is just unhealthy, resulting in cynicism and citizens withdrawing their participation. We must do better.
To stop the practice of gerrymandering, we must start by removing our districts map drawing from the partisan battlefield and giving it back to the voters.
Redistricting reform has long been a priority for the League of Women Voters. And, just recently, we updated our study nationwide. In 1974 in Colorado, it was the League that was a major force behind establishing the Reapportionment Commission now in place. This was a good proposal for its time, but times have changed, and we must now address current issues, add congressional redistricting to the process of map drawing and bring redistricting into the 21st century.
The initiatives proposed by the League and others is a historic reform in several key ways. The proposals would:
Remove current office holders from the process of drawing maps. Our plan requires nonpartisan professional legislative staff to ensure a set of criteria are met when districts are drawn, removing partisan gamesmanship.Protect communities of interest. For the first time ever, partisans will not be able to draw lines around or through these communities for the benefit of their party. Nonpartisan professionals will be required by statute to take every community of interest into account when drawing districts.Require the participation of unaffiliated voters, the largest voting bloc in Colorado and completely disenfranchised now by partisan politics. The participation of all voters in the state is essential. The more people who participate in the voting process, the better off we are as a state.Require extensive public participation and transparency. Let’s set the record straight on this. The initiatives increase the amount of public participation. The number of public hearings is increased, the commission is required to open the process through electronic comment and participation and public comment is required – at a minimum – after the introduction of each staff map. Adequate notice and timelines for participation must be included. In addition, there are requirements for open meetings and for following open records and sunshine laws.Require, after addressing the main principles, that competitiveness be considered. For the first time, the criteria required by the professional legislative staff will include maximizing the number of competitive districts. Right now, there are only four competitive races in the state House and only three have changed party all decade. The state Senate has a mere seven out of 35 districts that are competitive one election to the next.Require that independent commissions be established to include Democrats, Republicans and Unaffiliated/non-major party registered voters. There must be at least one person from the west slope, one from the area south of El Paso County and one from the eastern plains. The commissions must follow U.S. Constitution requirements, the Federal Voting Rights Act, requirements for county and city integrity, compactness, communities of interest and a review of competitiveness among districts. The lines for any district cannot be established to protect one party or one person over another. Votes on maps require a supermajority of a commission and must include at least one unaffiliated commissioner.Every time we have taken on reforming the system, we get pushback from the established interests that like the status quo. Our proposed initiatives will absolutely change the status quo, and we believe that is an important and good thing because that is when the voters win. Voters should choose their elected officials; elected officials should not choose their voters, which is the case at present.
The time has never been more important for establishing independent redistricting commissions. Districts are not competitive since vested interests rig the system. And, the next redistricting is close at hand with the mandated U.S. Census being conducted in 2020. With the proposals we have submitted, a process is established where no one party can hijack the process.
Toni Larson is program vice president for the League of Women Voters of Colorado. She has served on the state and national boards of the organization. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and (720) 387-8487.