Anti-gerrymandering amendments aim to reform redistricting process

Samantha Ye

voting boxes
Voting boxes stand in rows in the North Ballroom of the Lory Student Center. Election day is on Nov. 6th and voting/ballot drop off in the LSC can take place until 7 p.m. on election day. (Matt Begeman | Collegian)

In a year where gerrymandering has swept national headlines, two Colorado ballot measures hope to ban the practice before it reaches state lines.

Amendments Y and Z would create two 12-member legislatively-independent commissions to take over the legislative and congressional redistricting processes and establish additional redistricting guidelines.

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These measures are two of six legislatively-referred ballot issues this year.

Six other states including California and Arizona already have independent commissions according to Ballotpedia. Like Colorado, Utah and Missouri are voting on their own measures to follow suit this election.

The hope is independently-created districts will elect a more representative government, said Curtis Hubbard, a spokesman for Fair Maps Colorado, the group behind the amendments. Amending these into the state Constitution would also keep Colorado shielded from extreme partisan gerrymandering, which has plagued states like Texas, Maryland and Wisconsin.

“What we’ve seen is nationally is an uptick in gerrymandering as computer technology has allowed for the drawing of much more sophisticated maps to benefit one side or the other,” Hubbard said. “We want to protect Colorado from that practice.”

What do they do?

Amendment Y creates a commission for congressional redistricting, and Amendment Z, a commission for redistricting Colorado’s 35 State Senate and 65 State House of Representative districts.

The process to form the commissions is extensive. Out of a 92-page ballot book, 30 of those pages outline Amendments Y and Z specifically).

According to the Blue Book, a panel of three retired Colorado judges select the commissioners from pools of eligible applicants. The commission must be made up of four members each from the state’s two largest registered parties, currently Republicans and Democrats, and four unaffiliated members.

That means the commissions are not politically independent, but then, that was never the point.

“You can’t take partisan politics out a process that’s inherently partisan,” Frank McNulty, former Republican state Speaker of the House and a force behind the amendments, said to Colorado Public Radio.

Two members of each group or half the total commission are chosen randomly. The other half are still chosen by the panel, but the partisan selections get a bit of input from party leaders. The commission’s final form should also reflect the state’s racial, ethnic, gender and geographic makeup.

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When it comes to the actual map drawing, the criteria gets even more expansive.

The first priority is achieving population equality and accordance with the Voting Rights Act which protects minority voters, then preserving political subdivisions and communities of interest, and finally creating compactness and competitive districts when possible. Maps cannot be drawn for the purpose of protecting incumbents, candidates or political parties.

Nonpartisan commission staff draw the maps which must be approved by at least eight members of the commission, two of whom must be unaffiliated. This keeps the two major parties from “dividing up the seats as they see fit,” Hubbard said.

The Colorado Supreme Court must approve the final map unless they find the commission failed to properly apply the required criteria.

The measure also includes requirements for public hearings and lobbying disclosures so citizens have more involvement in the map-drawing process.

Supporters of the Amendments Y and Z say they will make Colorado a model for redistricting reform. 

“What’s at the heart of them is that they let voters pick their politicians, not the other way around,” Hubbard said.

What is the problem?

Gerrymandering is the process of drawing district lines to guarantee a certain election outcome, be it re-electing an incumbent or granting disproportional political representation to the party in power.

“Gerrymandering has huge consequences for which party controls Congress and, at the state level, which part controls the state legislature,” Colorado State University political science professor Robert Duffy wrote in an email to The Collegian.

Historically, he wrote, both parties have drawn themselves politically beneficial lines in places they had the advantage. 

In a swing state like Colorado, where voters are closely divided between Democrats, Republicans and independents, the fruits of redistricting have been hard to harvest, according to Pacific Standard. But, although Colorado has relatively compact districts, proportional representation and little history of extreme gerrymandering, the battle over district lines have been intense.

The last four Congressional redistrictings have led to court action, three of which ended in a judge drawing the final map, according to the Colorado Independent.

Currently, Colorado’s state house districts may slant toward Democrats who won 50.4 percent of the statewide vote in 2016, but snagged 57 percent of the seats, according to CPR. For Congressional districts, Colorado’s “efficiency gap”—a quantitative measure of unfair advantage from partisan gerrymandering—is pragmatically null, according to data analytics company Azavea.

Even then Republicans were upset by Colorado’s last redistricting results, Duffy wrote, due to the increased competitiveness of the Republican Mike Coffman’s Congressional District 6.

After years of bitter standoffs and thrown-out maps, it is no surprise the Colorado General Assembly in charge of congressional redistricting wants out. They sent the ballot measures to the voters with 100 percent support. 

The final plans are a bipartisan mashup of two redistricting solutions from each end of the aisle. Hubbard said the result is a collection of best practices for redistricting with a set of checks and balances to prevent the system from being gamed.

Although there is no formal opposition, those who oppose the measures have criticized the lack of representation for minor parties and the limitations placed on the Colorado Supreme Court who must evaluate whichever map is placed before them for approval.

Those concerns may not be enough to slow down the amendments though, which need 55 percent of the vote to pass.

Fair Maps feels good about the support they have built, including endorsements by every living governor of Colorado and a slew of organizations and civic leaders, Hubbard said.

“As we talk to voters, we continue to find strong support across the state from all across the political spectrum,” Hubbard said. “We like our chances on Election Day.”

Samantha Ye can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @samxye4.