The pandemic is throwing a wrench in Colorado’s once-in-a-decade effort to update its congressional and legislative boundaries leading up to the 2022 elections.
The U.S. Census Bureau announced on Feb. 12 that it won’t be releasing the necessary data for redistricting until Sept. 30 — six months past the usual release date and weeks after Colorado’s new maps are due to the state’s Supreme Court. The delay means Colorado’s newly formed independent redistricting commissions will have significantly less time to draw up the maps and seek public input, or they might miss their deadlines altogether.
“The best case scenario is that they’re saying Sept. 30, but what they really mean is July 31 and we get it sooner and we have a truncated process but we get it done,” said Jessika Shipley, a staff member of Colorado’s nonpartisan Legislative Council who is helping lead the redistricting efforts. “At this point, it’s very unlikely in my opinion.”
In 2018, Coloradans voted to implement two amendments — Y and Z — that created two independent redistricting commissions to redraw the state’s congressional and legislative maps with an eye towards fairness and minimizing the potential for gerrymandering. So far, 12 members — six for each commission — have been selected, and the remaining 12 will be chosen in March. Under the Colorado law, the congressional redistricting commission is supposed to have a map complete by Sept. 1, and the legislative map is due on Sept. 15.
Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat who helped draft amendments Y and Z, said it will be “pretty difficult, if not impossible” to meet the statutory deadlines given the circumstances.
One potential solution — which Fenberg said lawmakers are considering — is introducing a bill that essentially asks the Colorado Supreme Court to allow the state to miss their statutory deadlines.
Fenberg said if the question makes its way to the state’s highest court, the decision will boil down to whether it’s more important to meet the constitutional deadlines or have fair political maps for the next decade. “I suspect they would probably side with the latter, but we don’t know,” he said. “It’s an open question right now.”
Now that officials know they won’t get census data until September at the latest, Fenberg said they have some time to plan their next move.
“These are big questions and I think it’s appropriate that we think long and hard before we act to make sure we’re doing the right thing to create fair maps for the next 10 years,” Fenberg said.
“Every single state is essentially in the same position. So we’re not doing this alone. So I think, on one hand, yeah, the sooner the better. Everyone wants to know what’s going to happen,” he said. “But I also think it’s important that we do this in the context of what every other state is going to do. Meaning, if we change our dates for elections and no one else does that or vice versa, there could obviously be some complications.”
Public input process could be truncated
For Shipley, a main concern is that the state could blow past all the constitutional deadlines without finding a legal remedy and ultimately be sued for not getting the redistricting done in time.
“If you talk to some other people, certainly elected officials, I think they would tell you a worst-case scenario is finding a legal workaround that causes problems for the 2022 election cycle,” she said. “Because the later we get our work done, the later the Supreme Court will get their work done and then the later the counties and the clerks and recorders will get their precincts redrawn, which interferes with the caucus and the primary area or the party caucuses.”
The state also can’t wait to redraw its political maps. The Constitution requires the process to occur the year after the census is conducted.
One worry is that the truncated process will limit how much public input the commissions get for their proposed maps. Originally, per law, the commissions were supposed to host at least 21 public meetings around the state. Due to COVID, those meetings will likely occur virtually.
Shipley said the commissions could move forward with their outreach efforts without the updated data. But she’s concerned that, without any maps to point to, the process would be confusing and potentially misleading.
“I feel like if people don’t have something concrete to look at, they’re not going to understand why this would affect them,” she added.
Despite kinks in the process, organizations are pushing forward with outreach efforts to get community members up to speed with the process so they can hit the ground running when the data becomes available. On March 2, former state Rep. Bri Buentello from Pueblo is hosting an online discussion on redistricting in Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District.
“As the drafters of this amendment, we thought that this engagement process would have months and months,” said Amanda Gonzalez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, a nonpartisan organization involved in the redistricting process.
“We’re really reliant on community members from all over Colorado to participate in the process to make sure that their community is represented,” she added. “So, if that public engagement or public input process was cut short in any way, if we didn’t do as many meetings, if people didn’t have as many opportunities to make their voices heard, I think the state would really suffer for the next decade.”
Candidate pool for remaining 12 seats to be narrowed down by legislative leaders
One of the primary goals of amendment Y and Z was to establish redistricting commissions that reflected Colorado’s diversity — a goal that has yet to come to fruition.
Five out of the six members currently on the legislative redistricting commission are white and five of them are men. One member, John Buckley III, a corporate lawyer based in Colorado Springs, responded in his application that he identifies as “some other race.” He did not respond to a media request for more information. There is only one woman on the commission and one member lives outside of the Front Range.
For the congressional redistricting commission, three members identify as white and three are people of color. Four members are women and two are men and only one person lives outside of the Front Range.
“We knew that a diverse applicant pool was important because so much of the process happens by random lottery,” Gonzalez said. “The lottery didn’t result in the diversity that I think many people throughout the state would have liked to see.”
Shipley echoed those concerns.
“The way those random selection choices were made, the judges came up with 50 applicants from each party and 50 for the unaffiliated,” she said. “And then it was really just me picking balls out of a bingo cage and reading off the number that had randomly been assigned to these people’s names.”
Fenberg feels optimistic that the next selection round, which is less random, will produce different results. He wants to see more women and people of color, especially Black and Latino Coloradans.
To fill the remaining 12 spots on the commissions, legislative Republican and Democratic leaders from Colorado’s House and Senate on Tuesday submitted 80 names to a panel of judges. The judges will then select four eligible applicants from both parties, and four unaffiliated voters from the original pool of eligible applicants. The final selections for the congressional and legislative redistricting commissions will be released on March 1 and March 16, respectively.
“I haven’t seen the Republican lists, but I feel confident that the list that I’m going to put forward, and that House Majority Leader (Daneya) Esgar is putting forward, are going to have a very diverse set of folks on there for the judges to choose from,” Fenberg said.
“It’s incredibly important that these maps are drawn by people that understand the diversity that we have in our state and that’s geographic as well as racial and ethnic,” he said.
Current members of Colorado’s two independent redistricting commissions
Democrat: Gary Horvath, of Broomfield
Democrat: Robin Schepper, of Steamboat Springs
Republican: John Barnett, of Denver
Republican: John Buckley III, of Colorado Springs
Unaffiliated: Kevin Fletcher, of Golden
Unaffiliated: Samuel Greenidge, of Longmont
Democrat: Paula Espinoza, of Roxborough Park
Democrat: Elizabeth Wilkes, of Colorado Springs
Republican: Danny D. Moore, of Centennial
Republican: William J. Leone, of Westminster
Unaffiliated: Jolie C. Brawner, of Denver
Unaffiliated: Lori Smith Schell, of Durango
The final six members of both the congressional and legislative redistricting commissions will be released on March 1 and March 16, respectively.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 4:15 p.m., March 1, 2021, to correct the number, five, of men on the legislative redistricting commission.