Coloradans will know soon whether the state’s first attempt to rely on an independent commission to draw congressional districts will yield the map that’ll be used for the next decade.
The commission, authorized by a state constitutional amendment that passed overwhelmingly three years ago, plans to deliver the map that won near-unanimous approval earlier this week to the Colorado Supreme Court on Oct. 1.
Justices then have a month to decide whether the boundaries meet legal criteria with the option of sending the map back to the commission for revisions.
A companion process overseen by another independent commission is underway to redraw Colorado's 35 state Senate districts and 65 state House districts, though the schedule lags its congressional cousin's by a couple weeks.
Due to Colorado's explosive population growth over the last decade, the state adds a congressional district after next year's election, bringing its contingent in the House of Representatives from seven to eight.
The independent commissions are each made up of 12 voters — four who aren't affiliated with either major party, plus four Democrats and four Republicans, who were selected this spring from among hundreds of applicants. It takes a supermajority of eight commissioners, including at least two of the unaffiliated members, to approve a map.
Not only have the commissions been navigating an entirely new set of procedures — laid out in Amendments Y and Z, which each received 71% of the statewide vote in 2018 — but they've been doing it in the shadow of a global pandemic that delayed delivery of the detailed census numbers required to draw the maps.
But after considering testimony at dozens of public hearings held virtually and across the state — augmented by thousands of public comments submitted online — the commissioners honed in on a few variations of a staff-drawn map.
Each of the maps divided up the state differently, but they all based the new, eighth district in the suburbs north of Denver and established a district that covers much of the southern part of the state.
Following seven rounds of voting during a sometimes contentious, four-hour virtual meeting that lasted until midnight on Sept. 28, commissioners voted 11-1 to approve a map that reflected amendments suggested by Democratic commissioner Martha Coleman to the third staff plan, which was released earlier in September.
While the congressional map won’t be set in stone until the state’s high court gives its thumbs up, it isn’t too early to identify some winners, some losers and a split decision.
WINNERS: Colorado’s seven House incumbents
No one emerged from this year’s redistricting process with as good a reason to celebrate as the four Democrats and three Republicans who currently occupy the state’s congressional seats.
Even though the state constitution explicitly forbids drawing maps to favor incumbents, each of the seven current congressional office-holders wound up in his or her own current district, with each district’s political lean maintained.
That’s despite earlier map drafts that jumbled the sitting representatives, including one that drew U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, the Republican from the Western Slope, into the same district as U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, the Boulder County Democrat whose 2nd District encompasses college towns and ski resorts.
Other maps drew U.S. Reps. Ed Perlmutter, an Arvada Democrat, and Ken Buck, a Windsor Republican, either into or a stone's throw away from the new 8th District.
But unlike in some states, where more partisan-minded redistricting processes routinely pit incumbents against each other by drawing them into the same district or force incumbents into hostile territory, Colorado's commission left its members on home turf, and in nearly every case made it easier for the incumbent to win another term.
According to a measure of the new districts' competitiveness based on the results of eight statewide elections conducted in 2016, 2018 and 2020, the partisan split has only been close in one of the newly drawn districts.
That'd be Perlmutter's 7th District, which Democrats have nonetheless carried by an average of 7 points, well outside the margin political operatives usually call competitive.
And while the commission deliberately excluded the results of last year's presidential race in Colorado from the data used to determine competitiveness — Democrat Joe Biden crushed Republican Donald Trump by more than 13 points in a race both sides maintain could be an outlier because Trump was so deeply unpopular in the state — Biden outperformed his statewide results in the new 7th CD, winning over its voters by more than 14 points.
All but one of the other incumbents are landing in districts that have swung their party's way by landslide margins.
By the commission's measure, the 1st District, represented by U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, a Denver Democrat, favors Democrats by 57 points; Neguse's 2nd CD favors Democrats by 34 points; Buck's 4th CD leans toward Republicans by 27 points; Colorado Springs Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn's 5th District votes Republican by 20 points; and U.S. Rep. Jason Crow, a Centennial Democrat, resides in a 6th District that swings toward Democrats by 15 points.
Boebert's 3rd District only votes Republican by an average 9-point margin, but that marks a measurable improvement over roughly 6-point spread the GOP has enjoyed in the district's current configuration.
Fans of congressional battlegrounds will be comforted by the 8th CD, which starts its existence with a bare 1-point lean toward Democrats. Its voters picked Trump by 2 points in 2016 and then swung toward Biden last year by nearly 5 points.
LOSERS: Colorado's Hispanic and Latino voters
That's according to several advocacy groups that have already launched legal challenges to the final map, arguing that the commission ignored constitutional language requiring a thorough analysis of the influence of minority voters, rather than simply setting numerical targets for minority population in some districts.
Just one district contains more than one-third Hispanic residents, a level considered sufficient to sway an election outcome — the new 8th CD, with 38% — while three others, the 1st, 3rd and 6th CDs, count between 22% and 27% Hispanic residents.
At issue is whether the map fairly distributes Hispanic residents by preserving loosely defined "communities of interest," allowing the voters to influence results.
"That the Commission chose to prioritize competitiveness over communities of interest and, in the process, actively diluted minority votes, is deeply disappointing," the Colorado Latino Leadership, Advocacy and Research Organization said in a Sept. 30 release announcing plans to challenge the map.
DRAW: Boebert challenger Kerry Donovan
The Democratic state senator from Vail has been the frontrunner among a crowd of candidates running for the chance to take on Boebert in next year's election, raising more than $1 million — more than six times the totals reported by any of the 10 other declared candidates — through the end of June.
But while Donovan's residence fell within the 3rd CD boundaries in earlier map drafts, she found herself just across the line into Neguse's 2nd CD in the final map. Other Democrats hoping to unseat Boebert — including state Rep. Don Valdez of La Jara and activist Sol Sandoval of Pueblo — are within the newly drawn district.
Congressional candidates don't have to live in the district where they run, however, and Colorado voters haven't seemed to mind, electing Crow after he moved a mile or so from East Denver into Aurora and Republican Bob Beauprez after he moved into the newly created 7th CD two decades ago.
A handful of other candidates who have been making noise about challenging incumbents could also be doing some house-hunting — including state Rep. Colin Larson, R-Littleton, and GOP Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas, who were poised to run against Perlmutter and Crow, respectively, but fall outside the lines under the new map.
While her family has deep roots and owns a sprawling cattle ranch in Eagle County, Donovan would only have to drive a few miles west on Interstate 70 to find a place in Boebert's district.
What's more, Boebert declared a few weeks ago that "regardless of redistricting," she would "run & win in the 3rd," possibly neutralizing attacks if her opponent does the same.
Ernest Luning: "Just like that, congressional wannabes in the private sector and hard-working public servants who have been toiling away in local and state offices — their ambitions hampered by long-serving incumbents or home addresses in out-of-reach districts — saw an opening."