The Crestone Eagle • June, 2021

Colorado adds a seat to US House of Representatives

For the first time, independent commissions draw boundaries

by Lisa Cyriacks

This is an important time for the future of politics in Colorado. For the first time, voting districts for the state legislature and congress will be drawn by two independent commissions instead of state lawmakers. 

According to Census Bureau data released April 30, Colorado qualifies to pick up one seat, for a total of eight seats in the US House of Representatives. Drawing the congressional map takes on new importance this year.

In 2018, Colorado voters passed two ballot referendums, Amendments Y and Z, each with about 71% of the vote. The measures require the state to set up two independent commissions, one tasked with congressional redistricting and another with state legislative redistricting.

Based on the 2018 vote, the congressional redistricting commission is made up of 12 Colorado voters chosen by legislative leaders, the state Supreme Court and a random drawing. They’re evenly split between Republicans, Democrats and independents. 

Commissioners are responsible for the once-in-a-decade task of redrawing the state’s districts after the census results are released. The goal is to ensure the districts are fairly drawn.

Decisions about boundaries include a number of factors to consider: equality in number, contiguous, compact, comply with requirements in The Voting Rights Act, and preservation of “communities of interest”. The commissions are also charged with maximizing the number of politically competitive districts.

Historically, Colorado has had a lot of safe seats. Congressional District 5 has only ever been represented by Republicans, CD 1 in Denver and CD 2 based in Boulder have long been certain wins for Democrats. 

The last House seat to change parties was CD 6 (Jason Crow), which flipped from Republican to Democrat in 2018’s blue wave. The closest race in 2020 was CD 3, where Republican Lauren Boebert beat Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush by six points to hold the seat for her party.

Normally, the necessary census data to draw the maps would be delivered to states in March, following the end of a census year. But the 2020 census was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. Census Bureau has announced that this redistricting decennial data will not be delivered until Aug. 16 of this year.

The Colorado Independent Congressional and Legislative Redistricting Commissions have both approved a data set to allow them to prepare preliminary redistricting maps.

Two weeks after release of the revised data release schedule, the Colorado Supreme Court heard arguments over whether state legislators have the authority to enact a law that would adjust the voter-approved state redistricting process. At issue is Senate Bill 21-247, the recently formed independent commissions oppose.

SB 21-147 is focused on keeping the state’s redistricting maps on schedule for this fall, ahead of the 2022 off-year election campaign season, but based on actual 2020 census data.

SB 21-247, further defines what “necessary census data” means, so the actual decennial data could be used for the drawing of the maps. But the redistricting commission objected, saying lawmakers overstep their boundaries by trying to meddle in a voter-approved system that is codified in the state constitution.

The redistricting commissions are meant to be independent and non-partisan, a move away from state legislators influencing the process. Previously, elected officials or people handpicked by legislators, the governor, and the chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court were charged with drawing the maps that determined the likelihood of their own party holding or gaining seats.

The current redistricting commissions argue that state lawmakers no longer get to influence the redistricting process in any way, since voters chose to enshrine the commissions in the state constitution to take on those responsibilities. They argue that the bill would “undermine” the voter-backed amendment that created the commissions.

In justifying the bill, attorneys for the legislature said that just because the legislature created the independent redistricting commission system, it didn’t mean that they intended never to write laws like SB 247 to be assured that the most accurate data is used to draw the maps. This isn’t political they say; it assures that real 2020 census data is used to define what areas of the state have actually picked up population, so the redistricting maps are based on current data.

The Colorado Supreme Court is expected to rule on the matter in the coming days to weeks. If the court approves the legislation, it would then go to Gov. Jared Polis for a final signature.

As it turns out, the redistricting commissions are moving forward with plans for how to draw maps, without using the decennial census data. They have made it known they think this is up to them, not lawmakers, and expect to complete preliminary draft maps by the end of June.

The preliminary maps will be prepared on 2010 census blocks, which means the geometry will not align exactly with the 2020 census blocks that will be used for the final maps. This allows the data to be more accessible to the public, and the commissions believe it will only marginally impact the quality of the preliminary maps.

Once it is complete, the commissions’ data set will be publicly available, and interested persons will be able to draw their own maps using the commissions’ redistricting GIS portal.

The Independent Congressional Redistricting Commission anticipates receiving a preliminary congressional map from staff by June 23, 2021. The Independent Legislative Redistricting Commission will receive preliminary State House and State Senate maps by June 28, 2021. Both commissions will review these preliminary maps and seek public comment on them through a series of public hearings held throughout the state in July and August.

With the premise that the process this time around will be “unpolitical”, a lot of people and groups are weighing in because these boundaries can affect who speaks for them in Congress and how well their interests are represented. 

Opportunities for public engagement and input can be found on:

Here are some questions to get you started:

What shared interests unite your community? What are your community’s public policy concerns? What geographic areas or features are important to your community? What else should the commissions know about your community?