Election 2018LegislatureNews

Groups pushing Colo. redistricting change join up to get on the ballot

Author: Joey Bunch - March 27, 2018 - Updated: April 5, 2018

redistrictingTwo Colorado groups that want to change the way legislative and congressional maps are drawn are working together to get a measure on the ballot in November. (Photo by Joey Bunch/Colorado Politics)

DENVER — Fair Districts Colorado and People Not Politicians, two groups that want to reconfigure how the state draws congressional and legislative boundaries, will work together in a bid to get measures on the ballot in November, they said in a joint announcement Tuesday.

“This is a victory for compromise and common sense over partisanship and the broken status quo to the benefit of all Coloradans,” said Kent Thiry, CEO of Denver-based health company DaVita Inc., who helped launch Fair Districts last October. “This was a tough issue with high stakes, but we are proud to have worked through a tough negotiation and built a smart and balanced plan.”

The merger creates a broad partnership of groups that haven’t always agreed.

Fair Districts Colorado includes the League of Women Voters of Colorado, former Republican Gov. Bill Owens and former Democratic Gov. Dick Lamm, as well as former House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, and former Colorado Secretary of State Bernie Buescher, a Democrat from Grand Junction.

People Not Politicians includes the ACLU of Colorado, Colorado Common Cause, the NAACP, New Era Colorado Foundation, Padres Y Jovenes Unidos and ProgressNow Colorado.

In a press release, the groups said initiated ballot measures 170 and 171 would “advance fair, effective and less extremist representation in Colorado by, among other things, eliminating political gerrymandering and ensuring more competitive elections.”

They have six months from last Friday to collect 98,402 signatures to get the constitutional changes on the November ballot.

The groups are proposing:

  • Independent commissions to draw district maps for the General Assembly and U.S. House members. Each commission would have balanced representation with Republican, Democrat and unaffiliated members, with safeguards to ensure unaffiliated members do not have ties to either major party.
  • Criteria to prohibit gerrymandering while respecting federal voting laws on “communities of interest” for racial and ethnic minorities, as well as rural communities. Mapmakers will aim to keep municipalities and counties within the same district or districts.
  • Less partisanship in the map-drawing process with the help of non-partisan staff and the public, plus a requirement for a super-majority to adopt a final map. Legal challenges will face more scrutiny.
  • “Robust” transparency and public-participation guidelines.

Proponents of the change have said too many “safe” districts for Democrats and Republicans is a reason for the gridlock in both the Colorado legislature and in Congress, as candidates and elected leaders kowtow to the party’s agenda rather than compromise for the benefit of their districts.

With safe districts, elections are often decided in the primary, not the general election, which gives political parties out-sized clout to determine who is on the ballot and ultimately who wins the office.

Opponents have expressed concerns that the effort is really about weakening the power of minority voters to elect representatives.

Safe districts are routinely cited in political circles for the split legislature’s failures to compromise on such divisive issues as transportation and school funding, as well as gun control and religious liberty.

“Instead of voters choosing their elected officials, partisan gerrymandering has allowed elected officials to choose their voters,” Thiry said Tuesday. “Our reforms will fix that, creating a fair process for drawing district lines, giving independents a real seat at the table for the first time, and creating genuinely competitive districts.”

McNulty, who founded the Denver political consulting firm Square State Strategy Group in 2016,  cited a “partisan train wreck” the last two times the General Assembly drew the district maps, ultimately relying on the courts. He said the proposed change would provide “thoughtful checks and balances.”

“Gerrymandering will very literally be illegal, and many more seats at the state and federal level will actually be subject to true electoral competition,” he stated.

The commissions will be charged with maximizing competitive districts.

Bohemian Group CEO Joe Zimlich of People Not Politicians said the ballot effort is an opportunity to set partisanship aside.

“The measures we’ve agreed to mark such an occasion,” he stated. “Moving forward, Colorado will be an example of a redistricting and reapportionment process that emphasizes fairness, competitiveness and representation over partisanship. We are pleased to be able to support a plan that embraces those ideals.”

The Bohemian Group is part of the Bohemian Foundation, the Fort Collins-based philanthropy organization set up by billionaire and Democratic activist Pat Stryker.

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.