Redistricting. Reapportionment. Gerrymandering. Big words that create big problems.
There is no political or policy issue that is not affected by the re-drawing of legislative and congressional districts every 10 years. A truly representative democracy requires that we regularly adjust local “boundaries” in an effort to create a responsive and responsible government that reflects our ever-changing demographics.
In an ideal world, these boundaries would always be drawn in a competitively-balanced manner so as not to give an unfair advantage to any particular community, interest group, or political party. In the real world, this is akin to trying to take “politics” out of politics.
A new group of current and former lawmakers is pushing for a change to Colorado’s political map-making process. The proposal – known already as Initiative 55 – has some bipartisan support but is largely backed by Republicans such as former Governor Bill Owens (R), former Secretaries of State Donetta Davidson (R) and Gigi Dennis (R), and former House Speaker Frank McNulty (R). In fact, Initiative 55 should look pretty familiar to partisan Republicans: Much of the map-drawing requirements in Initiative 55 is comparable to a Republican redistricting attempt in 2004 that was ultimately repealed in 2010.
The primary talking point for the Initiative 55 group is that their proposal will hand over the map-making process to “nonpartisan experts,” which (in theory) would put a stop to gerrymandering. This smells like a good idea that has gained traction in other parts of the country, but what are the other ingredients that make up this political sausage? We don’t disagree that our current map-making process needs to be adjusted, but as we read through the draft language for “Initiative 55,” we found ourselves pumping the policy brakes on numerous occasions. For example:
♦ Initiative 55 would essentially make it impossible for minority groups to increase their voting power. In fact, the language specifically prohibits crafting district boundaries “for the purpose of augmenting or diluting the voting strength of a language or racial minority group.” This is one of several sections that would appear to be unconstitutional from the start.
♦ Initiative 55 upends some critical redistricting criteria in a way that actually makes it more difficult to craft competitive boundaries. The draft language outlines a few specific redistricting factors in a very specific order; the result is that “competitiveness” and “communities of interest” would become the least important considerations in redistricting. Initiative 55 supporters say that map makers would be “required” to draw competitive seats under this plan, but it would appear that they missed their own fine print.
♦ Metropolitan counties with large populations will still be carved up into several districts, but under Initiative 55, counties can be split even if they divide minority communities or other communities of interest.
♦ One of the stranger quirks in the language of Initiative 55 is related to the tie-breaking process for the Redistricting Commission. If the Commission cannot agree on a particular map and becomes deadlocked, the default solution is to go back to the first map presented by Commission staff – no matter how flawed or misguided it may have been. If the Commission can’t agree on later versions of a redistricting map, the law would require that they formally submit the first draft to the Colorado Supreme Court for approval.
♦ Here’s another weird quirk: In the event that staff “is unable to present initial plans to the commission,” Initiative 55 would allow the staff to draw district lines and directly present them to the Supreme Court for approval (Initiative 55 doesn’t explain what kind of “event” would prohibit staff from meeting with the Commission). In other words, a handful of unnamed “staff members” could somehow skip this entire process and do the map-drawing by themselves.
Colorado could certainly benefit from a change to its reapportionment and redistricting process, and there may be some seeds of thought in the draft language of Initiative 55 that should be examined further. As it stands currently, however, Initiative 55 is more of a rough first draft than a carefully-considered policy proposal. When you skip the details and rush past the fine print, you risk enacting a policy that ends up doing the opposite of whatever was intended.
Colorado can absolutely lead the way and show the rest of the country how best to deal with re-drawing legislative boundaries…but let’s slow down and get this right, first.