In 2018, voters said “enough” to the potential for partisan gerrymandering at the state and congressional level.
They approved, by better than 2:1 margins, Amendments Y and Z, which set up independent commissions, to be comprised of Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters, who would handle the creation of new congressional (Y) and legislative (Z) district maps after the 2020 Census.
So who draws districts for county commissioners? As it turns out, it’s the commissioners themselves.
Assistant House Majority Leader Chris Kennedy, D-Lakewood, and Rep. Colin Larson, R-Littleton, think copying the system set up for Y and Z is a good idea, and that forms the basis for House Bill 1073, which will be heard in the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee on Thursday.
The bill is drawing strong opposition from some of Colorado’s counties due to concerns it is an unfunded mandate.
And Kennedy admits it is.
The bill as it currently stands would apply only to the state’s largest counties that have five commissioners: Arapahoe, El Paso and Weld. An additional seven — those with populations that exceed 70,000 — could eventually be included, including Boulder, Jefferson and Mesa, if those counties choose to go to five commissioners (they all have three now, but some are considering going to five).
The only large counties that would be exempt: Broomfield and Denver, which are combined city/county but are governed by city councils, not county commissions.
Under the bill, a 7-member independent commission, assisted by nonpartisan staff, would take charge of drawing district maps. The commission would be made up of two Democrats, two Republicans and three unaffiliated voters, and maps would be approved by a simple majority. Kennedy said creating the 12-member commissions set up in Y and Z would be too unwieldy.
The commissions would use criteria in this order:
- equal population and the Voting Rights Act;
- communities of interest, political subdivisions and compactness;
- competitiveness; and
- no protection for incumbents.
Under the bill, the maps commission would meet in public meetings and the maps would be subject to judicial review.
Another provision of the bill would change current state law to allow for larger precincts, up to 4,000 people each, to address another problem: constant redrawing of precinct maps every time the population surges.
In Jefferson County, that’s meant redrawing precinct maps every two years, which is allowed under the law, for whenever a precinct exceeds 2,000 people.
“It’s the Wild West,” Kennedy recently told Colorado Politics, when asked why he wants to change the system.
“When it comes to the way counties draw their maps, the only rule is equal population and the Voting Rights Act,” he explained. That means the county commissioners are drawing their own districts. In most of the state, it’s not a big deal, he said, since the three commissioners run county-wide but have to live in the districts they represent. Kennedy said there's no evidence that the system for drawing districts has been abused, so his bill is intended to be proactive.
In the counties with five commissioners, either home rule or one larger than 70,000 people, there are three options for how commissioners are selected. It’s either five who are elected by the voters in the districts in which they live (Arapahoe and El Paso), five where commissioners must live in their districts but are elected county-wide (Adams), or three who live in the districts they represent and two more who are at-large (Weld).
Jefferson County has three commissioners but talk in the county around going to five has been around for years, Kennedy said. But going to five has also raised concerns about gerrymandering.
Kennedy advocates for five commissioners, all required to live and be elected from the district they represent. Given the size of Jefferson County, “you can’t possibly get around” to the whole county, he said. In order to help Jeffco go to five, Kennedy said he wanted to offer them the protection against gerrymandering.
Kennedy believes larger counties will have the staffing, and even some have GIS software that can handle the map-drawing process.
“I believe because we have unanimous support” for state and congressional redistricting (from the General Assembly in 2018), it makes sense to model county redistricting in the same way, he said.
Kennedy and Larson met with stakeholders last week, including representatives from Arapahoe, Boulder, El Paso and Jefferson counties as well as from the County Clerks Association.
“This restores faith in the system” and matches what voters intended with Y and Z, Larson told the group.
Arapahoe County spokesman Luc Hatlestad told Colorado Politics that the county’s commissioners have already voted to oppose the bill, citing chiefly its unfunded mandate as well as concerns about the amount of time such a process would require. They estimated it would cost about $21,000 to pay the retired county judges who would choose the mapping commission members.
In fact, the bill’s fiscal note comes in with a much larger figure: $75,000 to $135,000 per county, but that also includes paying for staff time, computer equipment and software, legal expenses and travel and per diem costs.