Colorado is facing an unprecedented constitutional crisis as it attempts to accomplish redistricting for our Congressional and state legislative seats.
Until now, the legislative districts have been redrawn after each census to reflect changes in the population by an 11-person commission appointed by the Assembly, governor and state Supreme Court. The congressional districts were redrawn by the Assembly. (This redrawing of congressional districts every 10 years is required by the U.S. Constitution; legislative redistricting follows the same mandate.)
Under the old system, whatever political party was dominating in the time period after the census controlled the drawing of districts – which allowed that party to wield control over who was elected.
This is what we call gerrymandering, and because of today’s sophistication of data-gathering, it’s an even more powerful political tool than ever before, said Paul DeBell, assistant professor of political science at Fort Lewis College.
One major impact of gerrymandering (which has been popular with both parties), is that in homogenous districts, the emphasis ends up on primaries, not general elections. In the primaries, candidates tend to appeal to the ideological fringes of their parties, fostering extremism.
“Gerrymandering can be a powerful factor in polarizing our politics,” DeBell said.
Back in 2018, Coloradans passed two amendments to the state Constitution intended to reduce partisan influence in redistricting. Amendments Y and Z require the formation of two independent commissions made up of 12 members – each including four Democrats, four Republicans and four unaffiliated voters – that will redraw the districts. This could prove very important this year, as the state’s population increase likely will create the addition of a congressional district. (If U.S. House Bill 1 passes, all states will have to set up independent commissions like ours.)
The congressional commission has been named. Lori Smith Schell of Durango, a lifelong unaffiliated voter and an independent energy economist, is a member. The legislative commission will be complete in a few weeks.
But what should have been a fairly straightforward bureaucratic process is now challenged by the postponement of the census, thanks to our former president and his attempt to change the way the census is counted.
Amendments Y and Z set out a particular timeline in which the redistricting process must occur.
Those deadlines are crucial because redistricting must be accomplished in time for county officials and the secretary of state – who run our elections and have their own mandated time frames – to prepare for the 2022 elections.
The redistricting process, including three meetings in each current district to hear voters’ concerns, was to have been complete – with staff members helping commissioners redraw the maps – by Sept. 1. The new maps have to be sent to the state Supreme Court, which can approve or ask for revisions. The whole shebang was supposed to be complete by Dec. 31. All of this is laid out in the amendments.
But census officials say they can’t promise to deliver the new population data until Sept. 30.
Only the state’s Supreme Court has the power to waive the constitutional requirements, and only the Legislature has clear authority to ask the court to do so.
The obvious solution? Legislators draft a bill asking the Supreme Court to delay the calendar of deadlines for redistricting. But some incumbent legislators are likely not too keen on having foreshortened 2022 campaigns.
This is an extraordinary, unexpected circumstance that could prevent amendments Y and Z from being properly implemented. It would behoove our legislators to put aside their personal interests and act swiftly to mitigate the problem.
Let’s give our new commissions the opportunity to help make future Colorado elections fairer.
It’s the will of the people.