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A wake-up call for Colorado’s redistricting commissioners as deadlines loom

United States Congressional Districts in Colorado, since 2013.
United States Congressional Districts in Colorado, since 2013.

This story was originally published in the Colorado Sun.

With less than two weeks before a final congressional map is due before the Colorado Supreme Court, Monday is likely to be a marathon meeting for the Independent Congressional Redistricting Commission.

The deadline is a big wake-up call for commissioners, who have struggled in recent weeks to agree on their direction.

“I am increasingly concerned at the chaos that could ensue here,” unaffiliated Commissioner Lori Schell of Durango said Thursday.

Schell and other members of the commission’s map analytics subcommittee spent hours this weekend studying map proposals — with new pitches still coming in — ahead of the meeting Monday where commissioners could potentially approve a final plan.

If they don’t approve a plan, commissioners must decide on any parameters for the final staff-drawn congressional map that will be released Thursday.

If the commission can’t get an eight-vote supermajority to approve a map by Sept. 28, the map released Thursday is the one that will be sent to the court.

“As long as we have a quorum,” Schell said of the Monday meeting, “we keep going.”

The congressional commission’s discussions have been increasingly tense in recent weeks as meetings stretch for hours and members express deep disagreements.

Legislative attorney Jeremiah Barry noted several times at a meeting Thursday that the commission hasn’t given nonpartisan staff direction on complying with constitutional-redistricting provisions, including where to set the bar for political competitiveness.

“We still have no direction,” he said.

Most of the commission’s three-and-a-half hour meeting Thursday was spent debating procedure and how the panel will vote on amendments in the hopes of streamlining work for the rest of the month. “I’m worried if we don’t devise a real tool for proceeding, it’ll just be … very chaotic,” said unaffiliated Commissioner Moussa Diawara of Colorado Springs.

The challenge for both the congressional commission and the Independent Legislative Redistricting Commission is how to balance a change in one part of their maps with their goals for another region.

The staff wasn’t able to execute some of the requirements approved by the legislative redistricting commission for the latest draft state House and Senate maps for that reason, redistricting attorney Pierce Lively told the legislative commission Thursday evening.

“Very often, a change in one corner of the map does impact the opposite corner. There’s a ripple effect,” Lively said.

Even if commissioners have an idea of what changes they want to see in the maps, it’s hard to know what can be reasonably executed without fiddling with district boundaries. That takes time, a luxury that neither commission really has.

The congressional commission’s map analytics subcommittee, with the help of Commissioner Martha Coleman, a Democrat from Fort Collins who is a geographer, has devoted a lot of extra time outside of regular commission meetings to review maps and workshop changes. But legislative commissioners acknowledged last week that they don’t have that expertise, and will be relying heavily on staff to draw maps.

The next staff-drawn state House and Senate maps are also set to be released Thursday.

Legislative commissioners get heated over Roaring Fork Valley

While the legislative redistricting commission has an extra 15 days to submit final state House and Senate maps to the Colorado Supreme Court, they’ve got a lot more details to consider to craft 100 new legislative districts.

Commissioners on Sunday requested several changes to the House and Senate maps, which nonpartisan staff will draw out so the panel can visualize what changes are actually feasible given the constitutional priorities that staff must follow.

That was after a contentious debate that lasted nearly two hours over whether to scale back a previous vote that defined the Roaring Fork Valley as a community of interest that “must include” Aspen, Basalt, El Jebel, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs, Rifle, Silt and Parachute.

A number of commissioners argued that the region was too expansive to keep together, creating problems for other parts of the Senate and House maps. Republican Commissioner Hunter Barnett of Englewood proposed scaling back the definition of the Roaring Fork Valley to include only Aspen, Basalt, El Jebel, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs.

“This is not personal,” said Barnett. “It’s a tsunami of an effect across the entire Western Slope.”

Commissioner Blanca Uzeta O’Learyan Aspen Democrat who is also a co-founder of the group Voces Unidas de las Montañas, which advocates for Latinos in the Roaring Fork Valley, wasn’t on board with any changes to the original motion.

A big reason to keep that large region together, she said, is to recognize growing Latino communities that are central to the region’s workforce and to acknowledge how gentrification has pushed many workers to live further and further from their places of employment.

“People want to remove the Latino part of this district. I know you all want to couch it in different terms, but that’s what you are doing,” Uzeta O’Leary said.

The legislative commission ultimately decided to delete language that the region “must include” certain communities in their definition of the Roaring Fork Valley. You can view all the decisions about communities of interest that the panel is considering here.

The legislative commission held its last three virtual public hearings Friday and Saturday.

Here’s some of what they heard:

  • Representatives of the Colorado Latino Leadership, Advocacy and Research Organization and people who support the group’s proposed maps said the new state Senate and House maps are a big improvement. Alex Apodaca-Cobell, a lobbyist for CLLARO, said he thinks the latest state Senate map draft still has issues with diluting the Latino votes in Adams and Weld counties.
  • Montezuma County officials raised concerns about the latest state House map continuing to split the county
  • Routt County resident Brita Horn, an unsuccessful Republican candidate for state treasurer in 2018, called the state Senate and House maps a “geographical nightmare,” including a complaint that the proposed House District 49 stretches across the continental divide
  • Republican-allied lobbyist Alan Philp submitted a new state House map that he said he consulted with CLLARO on
  • Summit County residents asked that they not be divided between two Senate districts, while Routt County residents asked to be included in districts with other ski-area counties, such as Summit and Grand

Q&A: Remember, redistricting cannot consider incumbents

QUESTION: I’m wondering if it’s possible that you redistrict (U.S. Rep. Lauren) Boebert into a different district from Durango and Pueblo. She does not represent us.

ANSWER: An anonymous person asked that question of the congressional commission during a recent Zoom meeting. The two redistricting commissions have heard a lot of comments and questions about congressional and statehouse incumbents, including comments from people who aren’t happy with their current representative or who think the maps would disadvantage an incumbent that they like.

Here’s the deal: The constitutional amendments creating the two independent commissions explicitly prohibit them from drawing new districts that protect incumbents, potential candidates or political parties.

It’s a significant change from the way maps were drawn in the past, when advantages (or disadvantages) for incumbents were often a top priority.

Nonpartisan staff doesn’t even look at where incumbents live while drawing the maps. The one exception is a legislative commission policy for state senators whose terms don’t end until 2025. That’s because senators are elected to four-year terms in alternating years, and state law requires they be allowed to serve out their full term. And if two senators whose terms don’t end until 2025 end up in the same district, that’s a problem.

Staff are allowed to make adjustments after the initial maps are drawn to prevent a conflict between two senators with time left to serve. But they have to walk a fine line between avoiding a conflict in state law and taking actions that unfairly protect incumbents or members of a certain party.

Some redistricting extras

Not everything in our notebooks ends up in a story. But there are plenty of interesting one-off comments and ideas that impart some important takeaways.

Here are some examples:

  • Anyone and everyone can draw new maps on the internet. That includes Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons, a Democrat who submitted a new House map that would keep his county in a single district. Several Summit County residents and officials supported FitzSimons’ map at public hearings last weekend.
  • Community of interest? “If you’re wondering why Park County should be included with Jefferson County, that is the home of South Park and we are the home of Casa Bonita and I’m sure everyone knows that connection there.” — Andy Kerr, a Democratic Jefferson County commissioner and former state lawmaker, speaking about a 7th Congressional District proposal
  • Reality check: “I know that you are not doing this as a quest for popularity because you cannot make everyone happy.” — Mark Hillman, a former state Senate majority leader
  • Truth: “We need to assume our responsibility and tell the people of Colorado the nonpartisan staff is only doing things at our request. There is no gerrymandering on their part. There is nothing that they are doing wrong. And it’s not fair for anyone to accuse them of trying to favor one party or the other. It’s not true. It’s just not right.” — Moussa Diawara, an unaffiliated congressional commissioner from Colorado Springs.

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