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CHOICE CUTS | How competing redistricting requirements will reshape Colorado’s congressional map

The high-stakes political remapping of Colorado will take balance, trade-offs

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Note: This story has been updated to accommodate developments that happened the week of June 7.

Colorado’s congressional redistricting commission has grappled with months-delayed census data, legislators trying to unconstitutionally tweak their procedures, a state Supreme Court case to defend their independence and the takedown of their first chairman over his controversial Facebook posts — and they’ve only been convened about three months.

Now they’re getting closer to their main task: the high-stakes political remapping of Colorado’s congressional map, this time with a new eighth district.

With an additional seat this year, and a booming urban population over the past decade, the current districts won’t just be adjusted at the margins. It will be a whole new map, setting the table for a decade of congressional elections.

The commissioners will have to balance several redistricting principles — contiguity and compactness, equal population, respecting political subdivisions, geographic boundaries and communities of interest, compliance with the Voting Rights Act and, finally, promoting competitiveness where possible. Depending on how each of those concepts are deployed, significantly different sets of congressional districts could result.

To explore how the redistricting criteria can affect a map, Colorado Politics compiled several different maps, each with district population deviations of less than one percentage point and using some of the same data being used by the commission, but drawn prioritizing different concepts. Some seem unlikely, but they illustrate how the redistricting criteria manifest in different maps, while some might end up resembling the map ultimately drawn by the commission.

For congressional redistricting, districts need to be as close to equal population as possible, down to only single-person differences. And they also have to be contiguous, meaning they’re a single, unsplit geographic unit.

From there, each of the redistricting criteria — included in the constitutional amendments overwhelmingly approved in 2018 to establish the commission system — leads to different mapping choices.

Compactness

Is something compact? It sounds like a simple question, but like most everything in the world of redistricting, it gets pretty technical, pretty quick. There are a few ways to measure compactness: You can divide the area of the district by the area of the smallest circle that could encapsulate it, meaning a circle would be a perfect district, but also meaning a spiraled snake of a district could also have a high “compactness” score. Other methods compare the perimeter and the area. Just last year, some researchers even came up with an algorithm for measuring compactness called, for lack of a better term, the “you know it when you see it” method.

An 8-district congressional plan drawn for Colorado, maximizing for two of the common compactness measurements (Roeck and Polsby-Popper) leads to several rectangular-ish districts: Two large rural districts, one in eastern Colorado and one in western Colorado; one district for El Paso County, and five more capturing the Front Range population between Douglas County and Wyoming.

The map shows that compactness in districting means, roughly, simply-shaped districts.

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But the simple shapes of the compactness-favoring map don’t line up with county and municipal boundaries, meaning that while it “scores” high for compactness, that comes at the cost of another of the redistricting criteria, respecting political subdivisions.

It also has only one district with a minority voting-age population greater than 35%, roughly where districts are considered to have a “minority influence” in the elections. But because other ways of drawing an eight-district plan in Colorado could produce a greater number of districts with a “minority influence” composition, the compactness-favoring map could be seen as coming at the cost of empowering minority voters. And if, in the course of drafting the map, it’s demonstrated that two or three districts can be drawn with “minority influence,” not doing so could be challenged in court for failing to comply with the Voting Rights Act, which calls for empowering minority groups where possible.

The map would have five solid Democratic districts, two solid Republican districts and one competitive district.

Competitiveness

“Competitiveness” is a term that invariably ends up in any thorough discussion of redistricting, usually based on the idea that competitive districts are something to be strived for.

Politicians, who for a long time redrew political maps without much public scrutiny, have an incentive to draw districts that are safe for both the majority and minority party, the theory goes, keeping the status quo intact, but virtually ensuring that the districts will never elect someone from another party.

But by drawing districts where the election chances are narrower for any given politician, competitiveness advocates say, the politicians that win elections in the competitive districts will have to do so by winning over the support of voters from both ends of the political spectrum — leading to more moderate politicians all around, instead of diehard partisans espousing polarizing views.

Competitive districts mean Congress should be more “responsive” to the voters as well, meaning that changes in public sentiment toward the parties will mean representatives from competitive districts will be swapped out for their partisan opponents more frequently. The result would be the partisan makeup of Congress shifting more dramatically with public sentiment.

Likewise, as more congressional districts are drawn to favor competitiveness, wave elections become more likely as well, because as popular support for each party ebbs and flows, just as many of the elected representatives will be tossed out in favor of the opposing party.

But there’s not complete agreement about how to define competitiveness, and how much there should be. Some say it’s a district that’s likely to swap partisan hands during the decade. Some say within five percentage points of a 50-50 partisan split. Some say that a state’s two-way partisan split, like Colorado’s 52-47 Democratic lean, should be considered the “center.” And then to determine when districts are “competitive,” which data to use is another question with several possible answers: Voter registration, past election results, composites blending multiple election results with voter registration? Even privately-collected consumer data can be used to determine an area's partisan leaning.

It’s possible to draw a congressional map for Colorado that maximizes the number of competitive districts, where seven of the eight districts would be near coin-toss districts.

Like the compactness-favoring map, it would split counties and cities. But unlike the compactness-favoring map, it wouldn’t be for the sake of simply-shaped districts, but rather to balance partisan composition, so the splits are more dramatic and probably would strike the residents of those areas as odd choices. Half of Pueblo, for instance, would be drawn into a district with several rural western-Colorado counties and parts of Colorado Springs, while the other half would be drawn into an eastern Rural district. And people who live in the northeastern part of the Colorado Springs area would be in the same district as parts of Boulder. And Boulder would be split into three districts.

Some of the districts in the plan achieve political balance by combining parts of urban areas that normally lean Democratic, with expansive swaths of rural Republican-leaning areas. That kind of configuration would likely lead to general elections where a rural Republican faces off against an urban Democrat. And if growth in urban centers continues to outpace rural Colorado, then the districts would drift Democratic over time.

The map would have two districts with a minority voting-age population composition around 35%.

In the past week, proponents of competitive districts have used the opportunity for public input to advocate for creating evenly matched districts at the commission's hearings.

Dr. Robert Loevy, a Colorado College political science professor and occasional Colorado Springs Gazette contributor, told the commission June 7 that they should strive to create between four and six competitive congressional districts. Loevy, who served as a legislative re-apportionment commissioner for Colorado in 2011, urged the commission to make either a safe Democratic district and a safe Republican district, or two safe districts each, then the remainder should be competitive. 

Ben Schler, a former Secretary of State office staff member and now a lobbyist registered to represent a nonprofit organization called Reasonable Districts Colorado, also advocated June 7 for competitive districts.

Schler said his organization was established in February to compile past election results and provide ways to use the data to analyze the competitiveness of various map plan options. Schler's organization is funded by Ready Colorado, a 501(c)4 organization whose website describes the group as a "coalition of conservatives fighting for better schools and more parental choice in education," the Colorado Association of Realtors, a 501(c)6 trade organization, and Colorado Concern, a 501(c)6 trade group, whose website says is "an exclusive alliance of top executives ... that promotes an environment that maximizes business profitability and certainty."

Rural counties proposal: expansive communities of interest?

Geographically, Colorado is overwhelmingly a rural, sparsely populated state, with three-quarters of the state's population living along the Front Range of the Rockies between Colorado Springs and Fort Collins.

To reflect that dynamic, Colorado’s rural counties have proposed a map with two large rural districts: One western district that includes Grand Junction as a major population center and the rest of Western Slope to the Utah border, and a second eastern rural district, from the eastern edge of the Front Range metro areas to the Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma borders. It would accommodate a nearly perfect El Paso County congressional district.

The groups pushing the plan, Action 22, an organization of southern and southwestern counties; Club 20, representing the state’s western counties and Pro 15, representing the northeastern part of the state, have argued that their map represents “communities of interest,” one of the other redistricting criteria enumerated in the state constitution. The term is used to describe a geographic grouping of people that is based on an issue or set of issues that have some relation to federal legislation. So the Colorado River Basin could, arguably, be a community of interest for the purposes of federal water legislation.

Over the past week, however, the question of how to divide Colorado's rural population has led to divides and juxtaposing concerns.

John Singletary, a board of trustees member of the Adams State University and a longtime political player in state politics, having served on state and county commissions and community organizations, told the congressional redistricting commissioners that he thinks the Hispanic and Latino communities of southern Colorado would be best served by being kept together, unlike the rural counties' proposal, which divides the San Luis Valley from Pueblo and Trinidad. 

The commissioners have since debated whether the east-west divide proposed by the rural counties, or the more north-south arrangement that would result from keeping the southern part of the state whole does a better job of respecting the communities of interest criteria.

Beyond communities of interest, if a district drawn in the southern part of the state could be demonstrated to empower Hispanic and Latino communities with enough voting power to significantly influence the outcome of elections there, then the Voting Rights Act requirements might apply as well.

Commissioner Simon Tafoya, a Denver Democrat, said the unique history of the Hispanic and Latino communities in southern Colorado, which he described as a mixture over centuries of Native Americans and Spanish settlers, needs to be considered when the commission divides the state's rural areas.   

Minority-majority and “influence” districts

Colorado’s population is roughly one-quarter Hispanic, with higher concentration of Hispanic residents in the suburbs on the periphery of Denver.

Because Colorado is going to have an additional congressional seat for the next decade, each district will go from being one-seventh to one-eighth of the population, meaning it may be possible to draw districts that give greater influence to the state’s ethnic minorities.

But there are different ways to go about that.

It’s possible to draw an upside-down-U-shaped district along the edge of Denver County, which is a majority non-white voting-age populationdistrict. It would arguably give the Hispanic community, and to a smaller degree the Denver-area Black community, a district where they comprise the majority and can elect congressional representatives of their choice.

Combining racial and ethnic minority groups for a combined minority-majority is called a “coalition district," and some courts have recognized them for the purposes of Voting Rights Act compliance but others have not.

Single "minority-majority" district map

Two variations of a map centered around a single district that has the highest concentration of non-white voters possible.

What’s interesting about this plan?
• The plan would create an upside-down U shape that includes the Denver metro area’s highest minority composition neighborhoods, combining parts of Lakewood in the west, with portions of Adams County on the northern border of Denver and much of Aurora to the east of Denver.
How will it affect other criteria?
• The plan would divide many cities and counties in the Denver area.
• The partisan split of the map would give Democrats four solid districts, with two solid Republican districts and two Republican-leaning districts.

The result would be a heavily Democratic district, with one of many different ways to configure other Denver-metro area districts around it, likely in a way that creates a second Democratic-leaning district that includes the remainder of Denver, and a third district with more of the Denver metro area, which could be near competitive.

Creating a minority-majority district in the Denver area would also likely lead to an overall map that is close to a 4-4 partisan split, which is better for Republicans than most map configurations.

The issue would need to be examined thoroughly by the commission, and they will likely hear from experts on the topic of racially polarized voting patterns, but drawing a district that way is possible. In other states where minority-majority districts are possible, the Voting Rights Act keeps them in place, protecting minority voting power.

But drawing a single district with a majority of non-white voters could be seen as “packing,” or concentrating political power for one group, at the expense of giving them influence in multiple districts.

So the commission will be faced with a balancing act: empowering minority groups by drawing districts that provide opportunities for influence in elections and not concentrating them into districts with such large minority populations that they are confined to influencing a smaller number of districts than might be possible.

Alternatively, if the goal of the districting is to end up with a similar composition to the state’s overall ethnic makeup, meaning giving influence to minority voters in roughly one-third of the districts, like the state is roughly one-third non-white, then the result is several districts, drawn carefully to not to exceed more than 40% in any single district, then it’s possible to draw three districts with between 35% and 40% minority voting-age population composition.

If those configurations can be demonstrated with past election data to empower the minority groups to influence those districts, then that could be a preferable option to a single district with a highest-possible minority composition.

But a map plan that provides three minority “influence” districts, as well as the map that creates a minority-majority district, would not keep cities and counties whole, but rather would split many apart, in order to create the desired racial balance.

Marco Dorado, a Democratic political operative working on redistricting in Colorado for the National Redistricting Action Fund, an affiliate of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, said he and others are especially keen on the idea of a district that empowers the Hispanic community on the northern side of Denver, straddling the county line between Denver and Adams County.

“That’s where the growth of the Latino community has been the most rapid,” Dorado said, emphasizing the balance needed. “We need to ensure that we’re not packing or cracking underrepresented communities.”

Dorado's idea about the northern parts of the Denver-metro area being drawn together materialized this week, in a map proposed by the Colorado Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. 

The group proposed a map that would include a district that would group together the areas north and northeast of the Denver metro area, portions of Adams County, southwest Weld County and Greeley, and northeast portions of Boulder County. It would be 26% Hispanic and in total 32% nonwhite. The group said the same dynamics identified by Dorado led them to their proposal.

The district would have a 6% Democratic lean, based on election data from 2012 to 2018. The group's plan also includes districts for the rest of the state, and the partisan split would favor Democrats 5-3.

The Chamber’s plan has detractors already.

“This proposal *fractures* the Latino voice in CO, would result in zero minority districts (when 2 are possible) and is deliberately designed to protect an incumbent,” Jennifer Parenti, a redistricting specialist with the civic and democratic rights organization Common Cause, said in a tweet this week about the Chamber’s map. “These are violations of federal law and CO Constitution. It's a bad map and should not be given any press.”

Parenti did not respond to requests to further clarify her tweet.

As the commission enters the final days before their staff will draft a preliminary map plan that will be used for public comment throughout the coming months, one of the congressional redistricting commissioners said he wants to hear from more community advocacy groups.

"We’ve not heard from any Native Americans. Just today the first Hispanic group to come before us," commissioner Tafoya said of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on June 8. "We have yet to see an African American organization come before us."

Keeping political subdivisions intact

Another option for the redistricting plan would be to attempt to keep as many of the cities and counties in the Denver area intact, without splitting them into multiple districts.

The city of Aurora has requested that the commission not split the city, like it has been in the past. Denver has a history of remaining a single congressional district as well.

It’s possible to draw them intact with several different configurations, with three districts differently situated around the bulk of Denver County.

Intact Denver-area cities map

Two variations on a map drawn to keep Denver's cities from being split, which fits into the rural counties' proposed map

What’s interesting about this plan?
• The plan would create an upside-down U shape that includes the Denver metro area’s highest minority composition neighborhoods, combining parts of Lakewood in the west, with portions of Adams County on the northern border of Denver and much of Aurora to the east of Denver.
How will it affect other criteria?
• The plan would divide many cities and counties in the Denver area.
• The partisan split of the map would give Democrats four solid districts, with two solid Republican districts and two Republican-leaning districts.

Most configurations would lead to two Democratic districts, one Republican district and one that is close to competitive.

Alan Philp, a Republican political consultant active in Colorado politics and in redistricting, said he thinks the idea of keeping most of the Denver-area districts intact is one that he expects will gain traction with the commission. He said Aurora leaders will probably continue to make the case for keeping their city whole, and that doing so is possible while also creating one or two competitive districts in the suburbs of the Denver area.

“I think it will be difficult for the commission to draw more than two competitive districts, and follow the other neutral constitutional criteria: keeping political subdivisions intact and respecting communities of interest, without creating districts that many would find repugnant, and not conducive to good representation.”

What’s next

By June 23, the congressional redistricting commission intends to have a preliminary draft map, which will provide the basis of a redistricting road show of sorts, where the commission will hold public hearings, presenting the maps and gathering input about what they like and what they don’t.

The various map plans prioritizing one concept over another are not entirely mutually exclusive. The commission may find opportunities to combine elements of some with parts of others. Perhaps, for example, two of the competitiveness-favoring map districts can be adjusted and fit together with a plan that also creates three minority-influence districts. It may be possible to keep the Denver-area cities and counties mostly intact, while also abiding by other criteria, like properly empowering minority voters. Or maybe the rural counties’ proposal can be adjusted to make one of the rural districts more competitive.  The commissioners will have to evaluate each option, then make choices to balance the criteria. 

In August, when the U.S. Census Bureau has said the decennial census data will be available, the commission will adjust the map using the final data and public input, creating a final congressional map plan.

The commissions have to finish the maps and submit them to the state Supreme Court for review in November, in order to give election administration officials enough time to incorporate the new districts into their 2022 election planning.

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