Colorado voters do not seem to be aware of what has happened to them. The Colorado state legislature redistricting committee has adopted redistricting plans that appear to guarantee Democratic Party majorities in both houses of the state legislature for the entire upcoming decade of the 2020s.
It will not matter if the state’s voters start casting their ballots mainly for Republicans. The district lines have been drawn so that the Democrats will almost always have a majority in the Colorado state Senate and the state House of Representatives in Denver.
This process is called gerrymandering. It is the drawing of legislative district lines in such a way that one political party always wins the seat, no matter how the statewide electorate may be voting.
Ironically, when the state’s voters adopted the current redistricting process in the 2018 general election, they were told the new process would end gerrymandering, not emphasize it.
The legislative redistricting plan has gone to the Colorado state Supreme Court for final approval. The court is currently holding hearings on the fairness of the redistricting. Our hope is that the Supreme Court judges will reject the gerrymandered plans for the state Senate and state House and send them back to the commission with encouragement to create more “competitive districts.”
A competitive district is one in which either political party, the Democratic or the Republican, can win the seat in the general election. Competitive seats contrast with safe-Democratic seats, where only the Democratic candidate can be elected, or a safe-Republican seat, where the Republican is always the winner.
Look first at the state Senate. It is the upper house of the state legislature and Colorado’s equivalent of the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C. According to the professional staff working for the state legislature redistricting committee, under the new redistricting plan the 35 state Senate seats can be characterized this way:
Safe-Democratic – 15
Lean-Democratic – 3
Safe-Republican – 9
Competitive – 8
Need for majority – 18
To have a majority in the state Senate, a party needs to win 18 or more seats. Note that the Democrats have 15 safe seats, only three short of majority. All the Democrats need to do is win the 3 Lean-Democratic seats and they are in control in the state Senate of Colorado.
But look at the daunting situation facing the Republicans. To gain a majority of 18 in the state Senate, they need to win the 9 safe-Republican seats, all 8 of the Competitive seats, and 1 of the Lean-Democratic seats. There would have to be a huge surge of Republican votes in Colorado for that to happen.
The same Democratic bias in the redistricting occurred in the state House of Representatives, the lower house of the Colorado legislature:
Safe-Democratic – 30
Lean-Democratic – 6
Safe-Republican – 19
Lean-Republican – 1
Competitive – 9
Need for majority – 33
Just as in the state Senate, the redistricting of the state House will make it very easy for the Democratic Party to win the 33 seats needed to take control. With 30 Safe-Democratic seats, only 3 out of 6 Lean-Democratic seats are needed to create a Democratic majority.
Similar to the state Senate, however, the Republicans are at a disadvantage. To win the 33 seats to be in charge in the Colorado House, they will need to win 19 Safe-Republican seats, 1 Lean-Republican seat, all 9 Competitive seats, and 3 Lean-Democratic seats. A flood of Republican votes would have to surge across Colorado to produce such an outcome.
Any reasonable person looking at these numbers would come to the following conclusion. With this gerrymandered situation in effect, the Democrats will undoubtedly control both houses of the Colorado legislature for all the elections from 2022 to 2030. A change to this Democratic domination will not be possible until 2032, when a new, every ten-years, state legislative redistricting will take effect.
Note that the Democrats will have gerrymandered majorities rather than electoral majorities.
We acknowledge that the Democrats have been on a winning streak in Colorado over the last two decades. The number of GOP registered voters statewide is below both unaffiliated registrations and Democratic registrations. The Democrats currently occupy every major statewide elected office. But we think the proposed legislative redistricting gives too large an advantage to the Democrats, despite their recent successes in Colorado elections.
The Colorado Republican Party did get something out of this gerrymandered state legislative redistricting plan. There will be 8 Safe-Republican seats in the state Senate and 9 Safe-Republican seats in the State House. No matter how unpopular the Republican Party might become over the decade of the 2020s, they will still have these gerrymandered pro-Republican “cannot-be-lost” seats in the state Capitol building in Denver.
A probable result of this gerrymandering will be that the Democrats will become “entrenched” in power in the Colorado state legislature. With the redistricting almost guaranteeing that they cannot lose their majorities in both houses, they will be able to pursue narrow Democratic Party programs, mainly left-wing in character, without worrying about what the broader electorate thinks of these programs.
Ten years ago, in 2011, the redistricting system in use at that time produced 38 competitive seats, 14 in the state Senate and 24 in the state House. This time around the redistricting produced only 17 competitive seats, 8 in the state Senate and 9 in the state House.
Sad to say, Colorado appears to be going backward when it comes to getting rid of gerrymandering. There will be 21 fewer competitive districts in the state legislature in the 2020s than there were in the 2010s.
Hopefully the state Supreme Court will step in here near the end of the process and mandate the state legislative redistricting commission to create more competitive districts in the Colorado state legislature for the upcoming decade.
Bob Loevy and Tom Cronin write on Colorado and national issues and were longtime political science professors at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. Bob Loevy served on the 2010 Colorado Redistricting Commission for the state legislature.