Coloradans deserve a fair redistricting process that honors the state Constitution and creates more competitive congressional, state Senate and state House districts. That was the message Colorado voters sent when they approved Amendments Y and Z in 2018 by an overwhelming margin.
These amendments gave a clear mandate to end gerrymandering, to encourage political competitiveness, and to put Colorado at the forefront of the nation by enacting the most sweeping congressional and legislative redistricting reforms of any state. Fairness and competitiveness were also, ostensibly, the message that the 2011 Colorado Redistricting Commission chair, Mario Carrera, espoused in a recent Denver Post opinion piece. Expanding on a formula for measuring competitiveness that was developed in 2011, Carrera suggests a formula for drawing “competitive districts” in 2021.
But the 2011 commission was a complete failure and gave Colorado one of the worst gerrymandered maps in the nation.
Between 2012–when districts were last drawn– and 2016, only three of Colorado’s 65 House seats experienced a change in political party representation. Three out of Sixty-Five!
According to the left-leaning website DailyKos, Colorado’s state House map is among the most gerrymandered legislative chambers in the nation. In 2012, 2014, and 2016, Republicans won more votes statewide than Democrats for seats in the state House of Representatives, but fell well short of winning majorities in the chamber in each year. The reason? Gerrymandering. Districts were drawn to pack Republicans into a few districts in order to make the surrounding districts easier for Democratic candidates to win. Unfortunately, gerrymandering works.
Colorado voters expect us to do better than the 2011 gerrymander debacle. The 2011 commission was an example of worst practices: maps introduced on a Sunday night and passed the next day on a partisan vote with no transparency. Layered on top of that was the failed definition of competitiveness and a bare majority of the commission’s members which lead us to the situation we are in now. The convincing margin by which Amendments Y and Z were passed by Colorado voters was a clear indication that the people of Colorado are fed up with the bitter partisanship that plagued the 2011 mapping process.
Ending gerrymandering has become a popular cause in recent years, and for good reason. Districts drawn to protect incumbents and ensure partisan outcomes lead to representatives who are not accountable to their voters and are toxic for our state and our country. Now, the eyes of a watchful nation are on Colorado, to see if our experiment with non-partisan redistricting reform can succeed. Let’s rise to the challenge. Success requires looking forward, not replicating the failures of the past.
Not every district will be competitive, a point on which I agree with Carrera. The Colorado Constitution first requires the commissions to draw districts that ensure equal population, composed of contiguous geographic areas, comply with the Voting Rights Act, preserve whole communities of interest and political subdivisions, and maximize compactness. After all of these considerations are satisfied, our state Constitution directs the commissions to draw the maximum number of competitive districts. But what formula should the commission employ to measure competitiveness? Getting that formula right is crucial to preventing the mistakes of the past.
Strangely, after warning the commissions of the dangers of relying on results only from “wave” elections, Carrera offers a formula that relies exclusively on election results from 2014 and 2018, two “wave” elections in Colorado. He prescribes a formula utilizing only state treasurer, secretary of state, and attorneys general elections from those two election years.
Those races are part of the picture, of course, but an honest assessment cannot ignore presidential and gubernatorial election results. After all, presidential election results are the best single predictor of how a district will perform at the congressional level. Only 16 members of the U.S. House of Representatives (out of 435 total, nationwide) hold districts that the other party’s presidential nominee won in 2020. Nine Republican members of Congress represent districts won by Joe Biden, while seven Democrat members represent districts won by Donald Trump, none of these districts are in Colorado.
Members of the congressional and legislative redistricting commissions are tackling the challenge of developing a fair measure of competitiveness. They are data-driven group.
On the Legislative Redistricting Commission alone, at least six of the 12 members work in analytical professions and sciences: two math teachers, a software engineer, a retired CPA, an economist, and a former director of elections. They undoubtedly recognize the gravity of their task.
The gerrymander of 2011 prompted Coloradans to demand a better way to draw congressional and legislative districts. It is imperative the commissions not let us down by repeating the failure of 2011.
Colin Larson, a Republican from Jefferson County, represents District 22 in the Colorado House of Representatives.
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