Democratic and Republican leaders in Colorado have at least one thing in common: Neither side trusts each other or the courts to be fairer to Colorado voters than Colorado voters would be to themselves.
That is the idea driving amendments Y and Z on the state’s November ballot to allow independent commissions to draw electoral district maps for legislators and members of Congress. The legislature voted unanimously in May to send the questions to voters.
Amendment Y would create a commission to redraw congressional boundaries after the 2020 census; Amendment Z would do the same for state legislative redistricting.
Colorado is not the first state to take on gerrymandering, but its effort to end the partisan practice could be the most extensive and unified of any state.
Gerrymandering is the dark art of drawing political maps for political purposes. Every 10 years, after the census, Colorado lawmakers create congressional districts while a politically appointed commission draws legislative maps. The stated purpose is to reflect shifts in population.
Political self-dealing and rampant distrust, however, rain on the process.
The party that has the majority can deliver safe districts to their candidates, taking the guesswork out of most elections in Colorado when one party is nearly certain to a win a district. Stacking the district that way, however, gives party leaders more power than voters over candidates, since those not faithful to party doctrine might face a primary without party support. That nearly ensures partisan gridlock on major issues. What’s needed in Washington takes precedent over what’s needed down the street.
Both sides admit that is true, but neither side openly admits to gerrymandering.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court offered little help in addressing what is and is not gerrymandering, by sending cases involving Wisconsin and Maryland political map-making back to the lower courts.
Colorado and a handful of other states aren’t waiting around on the courts anymore.
In Colorado, one of the main goals is to the keep the decisions out of the courts.
Courts pose new risksRepublicans are still grumbling about the maps the courts helped create in 2002 and 2011.
“Who drew those maps?” said state Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Republican from Canon City. “Judges. Who did it advantage? Not us.”
Democrats, however, see a shifting judicial landscape that might not be good for them in the future.
In office for 17 months, President Donald Trump is soon to seat his second appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court, the same number as Obama sent to the high court in eight years. Trump already has appointed 24 judges for the U.S. Courts of Appeals, while Obama seated 55 across his two terms.
Trump’s picks could affect judicial philosophy on political map-making for years to come, said Mark Grueskin, a prominent Denver lawyer who has represented the Democratic Party and Democratic causes.
“In the courts, both sides take a risk,” said Grueskin, who helped broker the difficult bipartisan compromises that led to amendments Y and Z.
La Plata County Commissioner Julie Westendorff, a supporter of the amendments, said anything to minimize the politics of gerrymandering will boost public confidence in elections.
“Gerrymandering allows politicians to choose their voters rather than voters choosing the politicians,” she said at a meeting Wednesday at the Durango Public Library by supporters of the two amendments.
Trish Pegram, co-president of the La Plata County League of Women Voters, said passage of the constitutional amendments would make Colorado a leader in preserving a free and fair electoral process.
Westendorf said elections are foundational to civil society, and protecting their trust, equity and accuracy is vital.
“We want to ensure the voter’s voice will be heard, and not watered down or compromised to benefit a political party,” she said.
Bernie Buescher, a former Colorado secretary of state and state representative from Mesa County, who is leading the Fair Maps Campaign said in the Durango stop that an all-out push will be made to get the measures passed because under Colorado rules the measures must pass by 55 percent of the vote to be added to the Colorado Constitution.
Under the old system, other than a few basic ground rules, the legislature and the reapportionment commission “could use a dart board” to draw maps, Grueskin said. One of those ground rules was at least a slippery grasp on the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which protects against racial gerrymandering.
Under the proposed system in Colorado, the guidelines – including adherence to the Voting Rights Act and other agreed-upon rules – would be spelled out and deliberated in public and passed by a supermajority of the proposed 12-member commissions.
The commissions – one for the legislature, another for congressional districts – would be made up of four members each from the two major parties and four unaffiliated members. The district map would have to be approved by eight of the 12 members, including at least two of the unaffiliated members.
If a map did make it to court, a judge would have a defined statement of intent about what the maps were meant to do rather than a shell game of politics.
Four of the eight sitting U.S. Supreme Court justices have questioned in decisions and dissents whether the 1965 law is still a necessary part of redistricting. Just five years ago, the court struck down major provisions of the Voting Rights Act that still required court approval for maps in nine Southern states and counties in five other states with a history of racial gerrymandering.
Fourteen years ago, however, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that redistricting was a matter of politics and an ill fit for the courts, except in the rare case that gerrymandering rose to the level of being unconstitutional.
The late Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority then that the Constitution did not provide “a judicially enforceable limit on the political considerations that the states and Congress may take into account when districting.”
In June, the Supreme Court declined to hear a case of alleged gerrymandering in North Carolina that was highly favorable to Republicans in a state that has seven redistricting lawsuits in the last decade. At the same time, the court let stand a map favored by Republicans in Texas.
Gerrymandering cases are pending in various courts for Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Colorado’s battlesColorado has been here before. In 1974, voters saw the drawback in letting lawmakers draw their own districts and passed a constitutional amendment with a 60 percent majority to create the Colorado Reapportionment Commission to draw state legislative boundaries.
That 11-member commission has been appointed every 10 years after each census by the governor, the Legislature and the courts, with only a simple majority necessary to pass anything they wished. The only fail-safe was the courts.
Nonetheless, history indicates it worked without much complaint in 1981 and 1991, as maps were redrawn.
Technology and distrust changed the game. The majority could employ sophisticated software to create a map that was an Election Day Trojan horse.
Neither the minority on the commission nor judges had access to the granular data that went into drawing the maps pushed forward by the majority. The only people who knew for sure whether the maps were gerrymandered were those who engineered them, and they left that for the courts to determine. The first rule of gerrymandering is to never talk about gerrymandering.
While the 1974 amendment put legislative redistricting in the hands of a commission, as imperfect as that panel may be seen by some, the drawing of congressional boundaries was left in the hands of the legislature. New district maps are approved by a simple-majority vote like any other bill.
Under those rules came the “midnight gerrymandering” of 2003.
After Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature couldn’t agree on congressional boundaries in 2002, the late Denver District Judge John Coughlin selected a map favorable to Democrats that was upheld by the Colorado Supreme Court.
Then, after an election seated more GOP state legislators, Republicans without much notice drew new boundaries in 2003 and passed them quickly. The courts threw out the map that could have given the Republicans six safe congressional seats in Colorado and just one to the Democrats.
In 2011, Republicans were in the minority, and it was their turn to claim the system was rigged in a dispute over “communities of interest,” meaning racial minorities, and respecting traditional borders, keeping cities and counties in the same districts as much as possible.
“Bitterness, a public outcry, and claims of favoritism are their enduring legacy,” Colorado Statesman op-ed contributor and former state Rep. Steve Tool wrote in 2016 about the last two maps. Tool, a Republican, served on the Reapportionment Commission in 2011.
Political cease-fireFor an issue with such a contentious history, amendments Y and Z have no formal opposition yet.
Toni Larson, president of the Colorado League of Women Voters, is neutral on parties but passionate about voting. She is glad to see others, including politicians, who are coming around to that way of thinking
Amendments Y and Z would improve democracy because they would give “the people themselves more of a chance to draw the lines,” Larson said. “It includes unaffiliated voters, so that they’re not disenfranchised in this part of the process, so those two things are basic to ensure fairness to independent voters.”
Webb: Where’s the beef?Former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb is not enthusiastic about the measures, but he won’t openly shoot holes in them. He thinks his fellow Democrats have “caved in” to the national fears that Republicans are gaining an advantage in the courts.
“I will probably support it, but I don’t think it’s necessary,” said Webb, a Democrat who was vice chair of the 2011 Reapportionment Commission.
The two safest congressional seats in Colorado are the 5th District in El Paso County (served by Rep. Doug Lamborn) for the Republicans and the 1st District 1 in Denver (served by Rep. Diana DeGette). To draw those lines any other way would be gerrymandering in itself and probably would rely on going beyond county borders, which mapmakers try to avoid, Webb said.
“I don’t have a problem with some districts that are primarily Republican or some that are primarily Democratic, because it’s based on where people live; it’s based on demographics,” Webb said.
Gerrymandering exists, especially in other states and especially, historically, in the Deep South, he said.
“It’s always existed,” Webb said. “But I’m saying there are varying degrees of it, and there always will be. There’s no such thing as absolute parity in politics.”
In practice, the new system won’t be much different than the old one, Webb figures.
So why would he support ballot initiatives he doesn’t think are necessary?
“I think all of the young ones out there believe this is the way to go,” said Webb, who is 77 years old. “I don’t agree, but I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. And then if I vote on their side, I’m in a better position to say, ‘I told you so.’”