Redistricting

Alana Kornaker, an intern with UCCS GeoCivics, sets up an educational map of Colorado with cones to show the different areas of growth through history. She was setting up the giant map before a meeting of the state's independent congressional redistricting commission at UCCS on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette

Following the commission’s late-night map adoption, some have said the process worked well and others have called it a compromise they can live with. Some political observers say the outcome fell short of their expectations, when it comes to incumbents' chances or gaining partisan advantage.

Meanwhile, at least two Hispanic advocacy organizations says they're planning to challenge the map, on the grounds that it dilutes minority voting power.

Mark Gaber, an attorney specializing in redistricting litigation with the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit organization that advocates for civic and democratic participation, said before a full day had passed that the maps simply fail to meet the requirements of the state’s constitution.

The constitution was amended in 2018 by the overwhelming passage of Amendments Y and Z, which created the independent redistricting commission system in Colorado, first used this year.

Gaber, echoing what other attorneys who specialize in redistricting and the application of voting rights laws, argues that the language used in Amendments Y and Z goes beyond the requirements of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, and requires the commission to give thorough consideration to whether minority voters are able to influence election outcomes, not just that the minority composition hits certain numbers.

Final adopted Colorado congressional redistricting map plan

The final congressional redistricting map, adopted late Tuesday, Sept. 28, which still must pass state Supreme Court review.

“The question isn’t ‘do we need to draw districts according to the VRA?’, they need to ask whether they meet the specific requirements in the state constitution,” Gaber said.

Gaber, who is working with the League of United Latin American Citizens, said the commissions needed to more carefully analyze election results data, including primary elections, to determine where racially polarized voting patterns are present, then design districts informed by that analysis.

“It appears commission didn’t engage with that at all,” Gaber said.

Gaber, the Campaign Legal Center and LULAC aren't alone either. 

The Colorado Latino Leadership, Advocacy and Research Organization (CLLARO) voiced the same concerns Wednesday.

“This is an incredibly disappointing outcome for Colorado Latinos, communities of interest, and Colorado voters as a whole. Voters were crystal clear in 2018: communities of interest should be preserved and prioritized," a press release from the organization explained. "It’s remarkable that the Commission disregarded the will of the voters by prioritizing an arbitrary competitiveness target over communities of interest."

Amanda Gonzalez, the executive director of Colorado Common Cause, a progressive advocacy organization, who is also registered as a redistricting lobbyist, reiterated criticisms of how the commission handled minority voter protections.

She, like Gaber, said that without more thoroughly analyzing racially polarized voting patterns, it’s impossible to properly evaluate the map.

“Did they succeed? We don’t know because they didn’t do a full Voting Rights Act analysis,” Gonzalez said. “They didn’t talk enough about what it means to dilute minority voting power, or even as much as they talked about competitiveness, despite the constitutional requirements.”

She criticized the comments made by some commissioners who, during the vote to adopt a final map, said they wouldn’t vote for a map unless it hit certain competitiveness thresholds, saying they reflect a misunderstanding of the way the state constitution’s requirements work, and that the commissioners should have known that.

“We talked about what competitiveness means for a lot of white voters in Colorado, but to say that we just didn’t get to doing a VRA analysis, we just didn’t get to analyzing whether Hispanic and Latino voters require voting rights protections, that’s problematic.”

Gaber said he intends to submit a filing with the state supreme court on behalf of Campaign Legal Center and LULAC that will challenge the map plan, arguing that it needs to be changed in order to comply with the state constitution.

"That the Commission chose to prioritize competitiveness over communities of interest and, in the process, actively diluted minority votes, is deeply disappointing. CLLARO will continue to elevate these concerns in the redistricting process,” the organization's press release said.

The analysis of Gaber and others who have articulated the same thoughts stand in contrast to the observations of partisan observers and redistricting actors on the political left and right.

Alan Philp, a Republican political operative and redistricting lobbyist who works for Colorado Neighborhood Coalition, a 501(c)4 nonprofit organization that doesn’t disclose its donors, said the consensus reached by commissioners, along with the collaboration they showed, demonstrate that the ballot measures overwhelmingly passed by voters in 2018 succeeded.

“An 11-1 vote says it all. Amendment Y’s process demanded that people from different backgrounds, different parts of the state, and different parties worked together to adopt a map,” Philp said. “It was a process, but a process that worked. The Colorado Independent Congressional Commission passed a collaborative, consensus map that is fair, reflective of the constitutional criteria, and created a highly competitive, new Hispanic influence district.”

Curtis Hubbard, a Democratic political operative and redistricting lobbyist who works for Fair Lines Colorado, a 501(c)4 nonprofit organization that doesn’t disclose its donors, emphasized the public input that helped guide the maps, and the decision to put the new 8th Congressional District in the areas stretching north from Denver.

“In looking at this process that included submission of more than 5,000 public comments, consideration of more than 200 maps, and hundreds of hours of public discussion, there is much for Coloradans to be proud of,” Hubbard said. “The map must still go to the Supreme Court for final review, but the commission and staff deserve credit for working through a condensed schedule and agreeing on a plan that — notably — places a new, competitive district in the diverse, fast-growing area stretching from Adams County north to Greeley.”

David Pourshoushtari, the communications director for the Colorado Democratic Party, thanked the commissioners for their work, but chided them for some of the partisan outcomes of the map.

“We are thankful to the commission for its hard work on this map, but remain concerned that competitiveness came almost exclusively at the expense of Democrats," Pourshoushtari said. "If the Supreme Court approves this plan, we are confident in our candidates and our ability to organize to ensure that Colorado will continue to move forward under Democratic leadership.”

Wellington Webb, the former mayor of Denver and the the vice chair of the 2011 Reapportionment Committee, had harsh words for the way the new map provides an easy path for incumbents. 

"I think, and from many I hear in the public, is they did the same thing that elected officials did: protect incumbents," Webb said, comparing the old system to the new, with a laugh, after reviewing the map Wednesday.

"Look at who's protected on the Republican side: Ken Buck, Boebert, Doug Lamborn. Those are safe Republican seats. They were before and they are after," Webb said. "Who are the safe Democrats? DeGette, she's been there since Noah's Ark. Crow's district actually got better, so the only one who got thrown under the bus was Perlmutter."

Shawn Martini, the vice president of advocacy for the Colorado Farm Bureau, said rural communities on the Eastern Plains lost clout by getting mixed in with more populous urban areas on the Front Range. Less legislative focus on farmers and ranchers in Washington, D.C., would be bad for the economic health of a state where agricultural, tourism and energy are the main economic drivers, he said.
 
"We still don't support splitting the Western Slope, regardless of where that split was made," Martini said. "I think for rural Colorado, on the east and west side of the state, these maps mark a step backwards from what was in the preliminary maps. And other than that they're pretty much even or they don't really improve on the current congressional configuration that we have."
 
He said the new map-making process could work, but it could do better than its maiden try.
 
"It was the first go-around," he said. "It doesn't necessarily mean that the process is flawed or it can't be successful. It's just that this commission didn't do such a great job."

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