Statement on 2018 Redistricting/Gerrymandering Reform Effort
By: Jason Legg, Strengthening Democracy Colorado (SDC)
Gerrymandering is a term used to describe the redrawing, known as redistricting, of legislative districts by legislators themselves with the intent to help themselves or their party gain electoral advantage. It is a massive problem in this country. It should be eliminated nationwide, including in Colorado. SDC supports prohibiting partisan considerations from the redistricting process. SDC supports utilizing an objective standard like the efficiency gap as a guardrail by which to know when natural variations between elections stray into gerrymandering territory. Finally, SDC supports assigning the redistricting process to an independent commission.
We’d like to think that it was because of SDC’s work and passion about this issue that it was consulted by the team (Fair Districts Colorado) behind proposed initiative 2017-18 #67-69 during the drafting process in the summer of 2017. We’re sincerely thankful for that, and especially for their inclusion of our request to require that districts not be drawn to purposefully advantage any political party or person. We’re excited about the effort to set this right in Colorado and strengthen our democracy (we never miss an opportunity for a plug).
However, we do think that the proposed reforms need to be further improved, and we thought there was plenty of time to do so when we told the drafter as much in mid 2017. Here’s some important context behind this sentiment. While reforming the redistricting process needs to happen as a matter of principle, it is not as high priority in Colorado as it is in other states.
Recent articles have noted that the state legislative districts drawn by Colorado’s existing independent commission resulted in democrats taking 57% of the state house despite only receiving 50.4% of the statewide vote. Republicans, some of them supporters of the current reform effort, understandably are frustrated by this 6.6% mismatch.
What should be noted, however, is that the independent commission who drew the maps that got that result were appointed by the same state legislature that drew the state’s federal congressional maps. Those maps resulted in Republicans taking 4 of the 7 seats, or 57%, despite Republicans only taking 51% of the statewide vote.
That’s a nearly identical 6% mismatch the other way, and it was the same legislature behind those maps as it was behind the commission. It is tough to reconcile the commission’s composition and the congressional maps being concocted for partisan advantage when the same legislature was ultimately behind them both in light of one map leaning 6.6% towards the Democrats and the other 6% towards Republicans.
Nonetheless, we frequently use the saying “don’t let perfect be the enemy of better”. That’s the rub though. The proposed reforms to the redistricting process are being described as giving Colorado’s unaffiliated voters representation in the process. That label is near and dear to SDC’s heart.
SDC works to make our democracy more representative of its people and their will. The people who are currently not included are more likely to be poor, working poor, working class, people of color, women, young, urban, and disabled. Not coincidentally, these groups are much more likely to be unaffiliated. These people represent 1.1 million Colorado registered voters, more than either the Democratic or Republican party.
The proposed reforms say that this is the problem it too wants to solve. They say they give unaffiliated voters a voice by purportedly reserving them four of the redistricting commission’s twelve seats. However, those 4 seats can be filled not just by members of the 1.1 million strong pool of unaffiliated voters. They can be filled by non-major party members, too. While there are only 10,720 members of the American Constitution Party, 11,393 members of the Green Party, 918 members of the Unity Party, and 39,602 members of the Libertarian Party, the current design could allow all four seats to be filled by their members. With unaffiliated Coloradans outnumbering Democrats and Republicans, why let unaffiliated commission slots be filled by these minor parties but not the seats reserved for Democrats and Republicans? And if your goal is to ensure unaffiliated voters have a seat at the table, why not actually ensure they have a seat at the table by guaranteeing them seats?
Lastly, the proposed reforms include nine different geographic requirements for these twelve seats (see proposed Section 48(4)). Notably, no such requirements exist to ensure that women, people of color, younger Coloradans, or, as noted above, unaffiliated voters have representatives on the commission. Seven must come from Colorado’s different congressional districts. Additionally, a commissioner must come from both the western slope and the eastern slope either east of Arapahoe County or south of El Paso County.
The proposed design requires one of the “unaffiliated”-remember these seats could go to members of the Green Party, Libertarian Party, American Constitution Party, or Unity Party-help satisfy these geographic requirements. With Republicans and Democrats getting the first eight picks and their leadership predominantly living in urban areas, it is quite foreseeable that the most rural of the geographic requirements will remain and need to be filled by an “unaffiliated” member. That may seem innocuous, or even desirable. If the goal is to ensure unaffiliated voters are represented in the process, however, it is self-defeating.
That’s true because over 80% of the state’s unaffiliated voters live in its most urban counties. Structuring the commission so that a quarter of the seats reserved for this group are allocated to a location where most of them don’t live is nonsensical. This requirement again undermines ensuring that they’re effectively represented on the commission.
These defects could have been easily and quickly cured, but they unfortunately were not. We applaud the effort to improve the redistricting process but wanted to see it done right.
Admin Note: DECO strongly supports proposals to make redistricting more democratic and fair. As written Fair Districts Colorado’s proposal does neither.