Every 10 years, states across the country have the opportunity to redraw the boundaries of their congressional and state legislative districts based on updated census data. The resulting maps have an enormous effect on how local and national politics play out.
In 2018, Coloradans voted to implement two amendments focused on reforming the way the state conducts legislative and congressional redistricting. The amendments created two independent commissions — each with 12 members — that will be tasked with redrawing the state’s political maps in a way that focuses on fairness and minimizes the potential for gerrymandering.
“Gerrymandering is drawing a political and electoral district in order to have a particular outcome,” said Rebecca Theobald, professor of geography at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. “And when we talk about partisan gerrymandering, we’re talking about that usually in terms of political parties. But it’s really important for people to understand that there are multiple criteria for drawing districts.”
Starting on Aug. 10, Colorado will begin accepting applications for the state’s first ever independent congressional and legislative redistricting commissions. Both commissions will be composed of four Democrats, four Republicans and four unaffiliated voters. Applicants will go through a lengthy vetting process led by retired judges, nonpartisan Legislative Council staff and legislative leadership in Colorado’s General Assembly.
Prior to the formation of the two independent commissions, Colorado used a similar model for state legislative redistricting, but the members of the commission were appointed by the governor, the chief justice and legislative leadership, according to Jessika Shipley, a staff member of Colorado’s nonpartisan Legislative Council. “So, it was more of a political position,” she said. Congressional redistricting was led by members of the state legislature.
“This will be the first time I think that the congressional districts and the state legislative districts will be redistricted in a way that is just focused on fairness,” Shipley said, who is helping to guide the formation of the two independent commissions.
Stripping away the politics of redistricting
Starting in January, Colorado’s Chief Justice, Nathan B. Coats, will select a panel of three recently retired judges from the Colorado Supreme Court and the Colorado Court of Appeals for each commission who will help whittle down the applicant pool to 50 Democrats, 50 Republicans and 50 unaffiliated candidates. From this pool of 150 people they will select six commissioners.
During the 2021 state legislative session, four legislative leaders from the House and the Senate will select 10 people each from the original applicant pool to be submitted to the judges for review. The judicial panel will then select four commissioners, one from each legislative leader’s pool. That brings the number of candidates to 10. The final two commissioners will be randomly selected by the judicial panel from the original pool of unaffiliated applicants.
Shipley said some ideal candidates would be a retired political science professor, a rural farmer, a teacher, a retired judge, or a stay-at-home parent who is engaged in their community. “We don’t want it to be all attorneys or all white guys age 37,” she joked.
The requirements for being on the commissions are relatively simple: you can’t be a public official, you can’t work for somebody who ran for office, you can’t be employed by a political party, and you can’t be a lobbyist.
When the commissions are in full swing next summer, Shipley said it will be a full-time job. Members of the commissions get $200 a day and will be reimbursed for necessary travel expenses. Both commissions are required to have three public meetings in each of the current congressional districts — a total of 21 meetings — throughout the summer to gather public input.
Amanda Gonzalez, executive director of the nonprofit Colorado Common Cause, is excited for the process to kick off. She’s been gearing up for it since voters approved the two ballot measures — amendments Y and Z — in 2018 that created the independent commissions.
“People should be picking their politicians, not the other way around,” Gonzalez said, whose organization helped draft the amendments that led to the creation of the independent commissions. “It shouldn’t be the case that if you’re a politician, you get to draw the maps and decide who’s in your district. By having two independent redistricting commissions, we’re ensuring that everyday Coloradans are going to be the folks drawing those maps.”
Waiting on the 2020 Census
The result of the two independent commissions is highly dependent on when the U.S. Census Bureau releases its 2020 data. Congress is debating whether to extend the March 31, 2021 deadline because of the delays in data collection brought on by the pandemic.
On July 31, the Bureau released a statement saying it is “working to complete data collection as soon as possible” and is striving to meet the statutory deadline of Dec. 31.
Colorado’s redistricting effort will not affect the 2020 elections. The drafting of the maps won’t kick off until 2021, which means they will play an important role in the 2022 congressional elections.
Due to Colorado’s exploding population over the last decade, the state might qualify for another congressional seat — bringing the total to eight members. Which is why there has been a heightened focus on Colorado’s census turnout.
Gonzalez said she’s been “disappointed” by how the Trump administration has politicized the census process.
In June 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was not constitutional to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census — a move being pushed by the Trump administration. A citizenship question last appeared on the U.S. census in 1950.
Recently, Trump issued a memo stating that he would not count undocumented immigrants in the 2020 census for the purposes of apportionment — the process of drawing congressional districts. The national organization that Gonzalez is part of has filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration in opposition of the memo. The lawsuit is pending.
“(The census process) has been a lot more politically motivated than it ever has been in the past,” Gonzalez said, adding that the census is the only form of civic engagement that everyone is eligible to participate in.
“We hope that all eligible voters turn out to vote, but there are requirements. You have to be a citizen, and you have to be 18,” Gonzalez said. “But the census isn’t like that. It’s supposed to count everybody.”
She said an undercount would have serious implications for Colorado. “For each Coloradan that we don’t count, we lose somewhere around $1,800 that comes into our state for programs like Head Start, or health insurance for little kids,” Gonzalez said, adding that it would also impact whether Colorado is awarded an additional congressional seat.
An undercount is especially detrimental for communities that have a high percentage of people of color or immigrant populations, Gonzalez explained. “When you have an undercount in certain neighborhoods or certain communities, it means that they are underrepresented in Congress, and in our state legislatures,” she said.
She stressed the importance of having a diverse applicant pool for the independent commissions to accurately reflect the population of Colorado. She’s worried that people will think they aren’t qualified to be on the commission.
“I’m worried they’ll think that you need to have a Ph.D. in map drawing to serve on this commission. And that’s just not true,” she said. “What we really need is people that are committed to fairness and connected to their community.”
Community members can submit their own maps for consideration
Theobald, the professor of geography, said that to have impartial commissions the public needs to be engaged in the drafting process.
“If we as a community do not have people able to understand how these lines are drawn and how these maps are made, then we aren’t going to be able to ask good questions of the Independent Redistricting Commission,” Theobald said, adding that understanding the basic criteria for a district is important.
Districts are essentially supposed to have the same number of people in them — which is one fundamental reason why it’s important to have an accurate census count when redistricting. A district should also be relatively compact, explained Theobald, who’s been working on geospatial technology education for the last 10 years. “Which means, basically, that the districts shouldn’t look weird,” she added.
Another basic criteria is that current political jurisdictions shouldn’t be split up. For example, it wouldn’t make sense to “draw a line down the middle of Colorado Springs and create two districts,” Theobald explained.
She encouraged members of the community to draw up their own maps and submit them for review. On her faculty website, she has links to different tools community members can use to create their own map proposals.
“There are all kinds of programs out there that people could take up drawing a map as part of their service organization,” she said. “If you’re part of the League of Women Voters or a farmers association, you could get together and say, ‘You know, this is what our community looks like. And this is how it should be represented.’”