Who should draw lines?

Bi­par­ti­san coali­tion draft­ing bal­lot ini­tia­tive to give de­ci­sive voice to un­af­fil­i­ated Coloradans

The Denver Post - - DENVER & THE WEST - By Brian Ea­son

A year after a sim­i­lar ef­fort fell apart be­cause of a le­gal chal­lenge, a bi­par­ti­san coali­tion is back at the draw­ing board in an at­tempt to end par­ti­san ger­ry­man­der­ing in Colorado.

Led by the League of Women Vot­ers of Colorado, the coali­tion is draft­ing a 2018 bal­lot ini­tia­tive that seeks to sig­nif­i­cantly di­lute the power of the two ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties in the state’s re­dis­trict­ing process, start­ing after the 2020 cen­sus.

In­stead, it would give un­af­fil­i­ated Coloradans — who now rep­re­sent 35 per­cent of the state’s ac­tive vot­ers — a de­ci­sive voice in how the state’s vot­ing lines are drawn ev­ery 10 years. The hope is that it will put an end to the once-a-decade par­ti­san war that has ended up in court three of the last four decades.

The re­dis­trict­ing process, which takes place across the coun­try after each U.S. cen­sus, is typ­i­cally ig­nored by all but the most po­lit­i­cally ac­tive. But the way the district bound­aries are drawn can have a pro­found ef­fect on who gets elected, from the lo­cal of­fices all the way to Congress.

Of­ten, it’s the party in power at the time that has the most in­flu­ence in how the dis­tricts are drawn, giv­ing them a chance to al­lo­cate their op­po­nents’ vot­ers in a way that gives them fewer chances to com­pete for seats.

“The feel­ing is that there’s still too much back-room deal­ing. And there’s still too much party pol­i­tics,” said Bar­bara Mat­ti­son, a League of Women Vot­ers mem­ber who is work­ing on the project.

But the coali­tion’s task won’t be easy. It re­quires up­end­ing the way the state’s maps have been drawn for 40 years.

And it’s sure to face strict le­gal scru­tiny. Be­cause of a re­cent bal­lot mea­sure that made it harder to change the state’s con­sti­tu­tion, the group will try to en­act re­forms through a change in state law. But the cur­rent process is out­lined in the state con­sti­tu­tion, so any statu­tory changes will have to con­form to the same ba­sic le­gal frame­work of the ex­ist­ing re­dis­trict­ing process, led by the Colorado Reap­por­tion­ment Com­mis­sion. Mat­ti­son says she be­lieves it can be done. The ef­fort comes at a time when ger­ry­man­der­ing — the re­draw­ing of dis­tricts to give an ad­van­tage to the party in power — has be­come a mat­ter of in­creas­ing na­tional con­cern. The U.S. Supreme Court last month agreed to hear a case out of Wis­con­sin, in which it will be asked to de­cide whether par­ti­san ger­ry­man­der­ing dis­en­fran­chises vot­ers and vi­o­lates the

Con­sti­tu­tion.

Last week, The As­so­ci­ated Press pub­lished its own anal­y­sis that found that par­ti­san ger­ry­man­der­ing of con­gres­sional and state leg­isla­tive dis­tricts ben­e­fited Repub­li­cans four times as of­ten as Democrats across the coun­try.

In that anal­y­sis, Colorado was one of the few states with a Demo­cratic ad­van­tage in its House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives in the 2016 elec­tion. But his­tor­i­cally, both par­ties here have sought to use the re­dis­trict­ing process to gain a leg up — most fa­mously the so-called “mid­night ger­ry­man­der” of 2003 by the Repub­li­can-led leg­is­la­ture, which was later re­jected by the Colorado Supreme Court.

Un­der a draft pro­posal that hasn’t been fi­nal­ized, the coali­tion — which in­cludes politi­cians from both par­ties — would seek to re­make the state leg­isla­tive re­dis­trict­ing com­mis­sion by re­quir­ing that at least three of its 11 mem­bers be un­af­fil­i­ated. It would also try to en­force bi­par­ti­san con­sen­sus by re­quir­ing a su­per­ma­jor­ity vote to adopt any map.

In the last round of re­dis­trict­ing after the 2010 Cen­sus, there were five Democrats, five Repub­li­cans and one un­af­fil­i­ated mem­ber, who served as a swing vote and ul­ti­mately sided with the Democrats. Repub­li­cans called the maps “po­lit­i­cally vin­dic­tive” and pre­dicted — ac­cu­rately, it would turn out — that they would be to the Democrats’ ben­e­fit.

Last year, Democrats won 57 per­cent of state House seats in Novem­ber even though Repub­li­cans won 50.4 per­cent of the statewide vote in those races. Democrats won 37 of 65 House seats, the­o­ret­i­cally five more than would be ex­pected based on their statewide vote share, ac­cord­ing to The As­so­ci­ated Press anal­y­sis.

“We re­ally be­lieve votes should count,” Mat­ti­son said. “Vot­ers should pick their politi­cians. Politi­cians shouldn’t pick their vot­ers.”

A sim­i­lar setup would be es­tab­lished for con­gres­sional re­dis­trict­ing, which to­day is sup­posed to be han­dled by the state leg­is­la­ture. In the most re­cent round, law­mak­ers couldn’t agree on a plan, and the cur­rent map was se­lected by court or­der. The As­so­ci­ated Press found no sig­nif­i­cant ev­i­dence of par­ti­san bias in those dis­tricts.

To get the ini­tia­tive on the 2018 bal­lot, the coali­tion must col­lect at least 98,492 sig­na­tures from reg­is­tered vot­ers — or 5 per­cent of the votes cast in the most re­cent sec­re­tary of state elec­tion. Vot­ers can ap­prove bal­lot ini­tia­tives with a sim­ple ma­jor­ity. For con­sti­tu­tional mea­sures, the sig­na­ture and vote thresh­olds are sig­nif­i­cantly higher.

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