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Bennet takes on gerrymandering, even as Colo. voters are set to decide it

Author: Joey Bunch - June 21, 2018 - Updated: June 21, 2018

Bennet gerrymanderingColorado Sen. Michael Bennet, at right, talks with, from left, Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., chat as they pass in the Senate subway on Capitol Hill in February. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet introduced a bill in Congress Thursday that aims to end gerrymandering, the same issue that Colorado voters are set to consider in November.

The state ballot question, however, seeks to lessen the influence of partisan lawyers by creating independent commissions and professional staff to draw up maps for state legislators and members of Congress. Bennet’s bill appears to invite more protracted litigation based on political feuding.

Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing political boundaries to the benefit of one party by including or excluding certain areas that have historically voted for or against the party in charge of  creating the maps, which leads to the courts stepping in if the maps are challenged. Usually it’s political or advocacy organizations that cite “standing” in the case, meaning the people they represent would be harmed.

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“To enforce this prohibition, the bill would provide standing to every eligible voter to challenge maps that unduly favor a particular political party. It also would provide guidance to courts and map-makers on how to fix gerrymandered maps,” Bennet’s office said in a press release Thursday.

That stands in contrast to the bullet points from Fair Maps Colorado, the bipartisan group pushing the ballot measure: “Limit the roles of partisans and courts in the process.”

However, in a summary of his bill, Bennet’s office said it preserves the rights of states such as Colorado to choose their own course, as long as it’s not a path toward gerrymandering.

“The bill preserves states’ rights to determine their own redistricting processes, as long as they do not conflict with the bill’s prohibition on partisan gerrymandering,” the summary states. “The bill does not prevent states from adopting additional redistricting criteria or creating their own cause of action.”

You can read the full summary by clicking here.

“Bennet’s bill wouldn’t affect our measure, which already gurantees certain standing and also guarantees a review by the court of every adopted map,” said Curtis Hubbard, a spokesman for Fair Maps Colorado.

Last month the Colorado legislature unanimously referred a question to the November ballot to would establish redistricting commissions made up equally of Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated members. The way maps have historically been drawn is by the legislature with influence from the governor. That inevitably led to political fights that put the map-making responsibility in the hands of he court.

Amendment Y would address congressional redistricting, while Amendment Z would guide how legislative districts are carved out.

Nonetheless, it has resulted it scores of “safe” districts across the state, giving political parties outsized ability to designate candidates and protect incumbents. That, however, has given party politics heavy sway over officeholders, those pushing the ballot question argue.

Bennet’s move might not matter. The Democrat from Denver has until Jan. 3 to pass his Fair Maps Act of 2018. The House and Senate are controlled by Republicans.

His bill spun out of Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision to send partisan challenges to allegedly gerrymandered legislative maps in Wisconsin and Maryland back to the lower courts, based on technicalities.

“Extreme partisan gerrymandering distorts the reciprocal relationship between citizens and their elected officials, which is the foundation of our self-governing democratic republic,” Bennet said in a statement.

“Prohibiting this partisan practice is one of the most significant ways we can begin to fix our broken political system. This week’s Supreme Court decisions failed to answer important questions on gerrymandering that can only be resolved if voters have standing to challenge their state’s extremely partisan maps. This bill is the first step to enable citizens to regain control of their government.”

Bennet’s office provided a quote from Michael Li, senior attorney for the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice at New York University:

Senator Bennet’s bill offers a smart, comprehensive approach to ending the toxic effect extreme gerrymandering has on our democracy. It would ensure that the rules for 2021’s congressional redistricting will for the first time be fair and uniform throughout the nation. The bill builds on growing bipartisan momentum in the states and the courts to end politicians’ gerrymandering abuses, and is a vital step to make sure that congressional maps benefit voters, not political parties.

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.