Protecting the right to a meaningful vote is a pillar of our democracy. No matter who you are, what party you belong to, or where you’re from, your vote should matter as much (and only as much) as the next person’s. This principle is enshrined in our Constitution and in the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which also serves to protect voting rights for people of color. The right to vote is central to ensuring that we can elect candidates who will fight for essential resources and services for our communities such as hospitals, fire trucks, school funding, and public parks.
Colorado is well known for setting the standard when it comes to our elections and the voter-centric laws that facilitate high voter participation across the state. And, if the Colorado Independent Redistricting Commissions follow the rules laid out by our state constitution, we may soon be known for the role our redistricting process plays in protecting voting rights as well. That’s because protecting the right to vote doesn’t just happen in November of even years; it starts the very moment that new political districts are drawn once every decade.
While the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in the disastrous Shelby County v. Holder decision, Colorado strengthened voting rights when we passed Amendments Y and Z in 2018. Talk of “competitiveness” and representative districts may have gotten all the headlines during the Fair Maps campaign but stronger state law protections for communities of color may actually be the star of the show. For redistricting nerds like me, it’s really the sleeper hit of the summer.
If it’s been a while since your last civics class, here’s a bit of a refresher:
Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and subsequent case law tell us that the people who draw the districts must draw a “majority-minority” district, one where a “minority” group makes up a majority of the voting-age population, when certain criteria are met. The courts have also recognized additional minority group electoral districts that are not covered under Section 2. These include an “influence district” which is a congressional or legislative district “in which a minority group can influence the outcome of an election,” but do not make up a majority of voting age citizens.
Here’s where that nerdy sleeper hit comes in. In Colorado, voters decided to strengthen voting rights beyond federal law by adding a clause to the Colorado Constitution that says our map drawers cannot “dilute the impact of [a] racial or language minority group’s electoral influence” (emphasis added). This is true even if the dilution happens by mistake. Under our state constitution, a redistricting commission cannot approve a map that is drawn for the purposes of diluting the voices of people of color or those who speak a language other than English or a map that “results in” that dilution. And that’s a big deal.
Compliance with the state constitution and Voting Rights Act in Colorado is the most important part of our redistricting process. To achieve this, the commissions may need to set aside partisan competitiveness and archaic county borders, so everyone gets a voice in our democracy. Maps should be based on modern shifts in how people have developed and built their communities, not the lines drawn as many as 160 years ago when Colorado had less than 35,000 residents.
A fair map will look at how to preserve our thriving Latino communities whose regional identities and locations have produced shared policy interests in affordable housing, economic opportunity, and air quality. A fair map will preserve the economic hubs built by Black Coloradans and recognize their shared interests in education, transportation, and affordable housing. A fair map will find ways to protect the interests of Native Americans and the Ute reservations, while also preserving agricultural and mountain resort communities. And we can’t, legally or morally, accept anything less than fair maps. The maps we draw now will determine every community’s resources and representation for the next decade, and fair maps make communities stronger.
Amanda Gonzalez is the executive director of Colorado Common Cause, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that advocates for open, honest, and accountable government.