Lines drawn over ballot measures to determine how Colorado draws its legislative, congressional lines

Author: Ernest Luning - January 3, 2018 - Updated: January 22, 2018

Colorado's Capitol dome gleams in the sunlight in this picture taken on Opening Day of the Legislature, Jan. 13, 2016. (Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman)Colorado’s Capitol dome gleams in the sunlight in this picture taken on Opening Day of the Legislature, Jan. 13, 2016. (Photo by Ernest Luning/Colorado Politics file)

The battle is heating up over how Colorado draws its legislative and congressional boundaries.

After failing to knock out a pair of proposed redistricting and reapportionment ballot measures in court, a rough coalition of mostly liberal and good-government groups filed competing ballot measures in late December and is vowing to take the choice before voters this fall — potentially a case of, if you can’t beat ’em in court, join ’em on the ballot.

Backers of the original measures, meanwhile, say they welcome the tacit acknowledgement that the current system needs fixing and are offering to work out a plan with their rivals that “ends gerrymandering, protects communities of interest and promotes truly competitive elections.”

At stake: the rules governing the state’s reapportionment and redistricting process — the former describes drawing legislative boundaries, the latter refers to drawing congressional lines — which takes place once a decade after the census. The two opposing coalitions each maintain their plans will do away with gerrymandering, or the practice of drawing districts to advantage a particular party, and increase the number of competitive seats while grouping voters sensibly. They differ sharply, however, on some details and aren’t shy about disparaging their opponents’ schemes.

Both sets of proposals establish complicated procedures for naming commissioners, for instance, and both groups fault the other for falling short when it comes to guaranteeing sufficient diversity and freedom from partisan influence. The plans rank various criteria that should be considered when drawing lines, and neither group thinks the other gets it right.

As it stands, Fair Districts Colorado, a bipartisan group that’s been working on ballot proposals for two years, passed a major hurdle a week before Christmas — the Colorado Supreme Court approved the titles for initiative Nos. 48 and 50, dubbed State Legislative Redistricting and Congressional Redistricting, respectively. They’re sponsored by former state Rep. Kathleen Curry of Gunnison, a former Democrat who dropped her party affiliation in her final term, and Toni Larson, program vice president of the League of Women Voters of Colorado.

Because Initiative 48 amends Colorado’s constitution, it’ll have to get 55 percent of the vote in order to pass under a new requirement for state ballot measures, and supporters will have to gather signatures from each of the state’s 35 Senate districts — at least 2,300 per district for a total of at least 98,492 — in order to get it on the ballot.

Fair Districts Colorado is chaired by Kent Thiry, the CEO of kidney dialysis giant DaVita Inc., who spent some time as a Republican and weighed a run for governor in 2017 but recently changed his registration back to unaffiliated. Others in a long list of key backers and endorsers include Curry, former Deputy Secretary of State Bill Hobbs, former Republican Gov. Bill Owens, former Democratic Gov. Dick Lamm, former Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty and former Democratic House Speaker Mark Ferrandino.

The opposing coalition, dubbed People Not Politicians, filed its proposed initiative Nos. 95 and 96 — the first is about congressional redistricting, the second about legislative reapportionment — on Dec. 20, listing as sponsors Carla Cecilia Castedo Ribero, the Colorado director for Mi Familia Vota Education Fund, and Rob DuRay, program director for Colorado Civic Engagement Roundtable and board chair of New Era Colorado.

Ron Tupa, a former Democratic state lawmaker from Boulder and a consultant to Fair Districts, greeted the new proposals with a combination of derision and grudging embrace.

“The alternative initiatives fall dramatically short in serious and substantive ways, creating a process that is not only less transparent than the current process, but also allows for continued abuse by the very partisans on both sides who stand to benefit most from their drawing of gerrymandered districts,” Tupa said in a  statement.

“Nevertheless, we do view the filing of these initiatives as a positive symbolic step, acknowledging the flaws inherent in the current process. At a minimum both sides of the debate are now on record that the current redistricting process is woefully deficient and needs a full overhaul.”

Tupa said that the Fair Districts group would be happy to “sit down with the proponents of these measures and work toward a common plan” with the same stated goals, although he added another dig at the People Not Politicians folks, saying he was thankful the state’s high court “rejected the latest frivolous legal maneuvers attacking our plan.”

DuRay, one of the sponsors of the new initiatives, was a plaintiff in the legal challenge against the Fair Districts measures, along with Katina Banks, an attorney and board treasurer for One Colorado.

“We’re always willing to talk about improvements to the current system,” Ellen Dumm, a communications consultant for progressive causes and spokesperson for People Not Politicians, told Colorado Politics. “But it depends on what they dig their heels in on. There are some basic issues that need to be worked through to show it’s fair to everyone and truly will be competitive.”

While she said the coalition of People Not Politicians groups was still assembling, the groups that opposed Fair Districts’ initial proposal included Colorado Common Cause, the ACLU of Colorado, Mi Familia Vota, the NAACP area conference, One Colorado, Colorado People’s Alliance, COLOR and Servicios De La Raza, as well as members of past reapportionment commissions including Entravision executive Mario Carrera and Rosemary Rodriguez, the former state director for Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and a former member of the Denver City Council and Denver Public Schools board.

Dumm pointed to numerous objections her coalition has with the Fair Districts plans, including Tupa’s contention they’re more transparent than the new proposals.

“For him to not say ours is not transparent is bizarre because their maps are drawn behind closed doors. With ours, anybody can submit a map,” Dumm said. She continued: “One of the most fundamental problems with their proposal is they say all the nice things, but the reality is that ‘competitive’ in their proposals is not defined, and it’s the last and weakest factor. That’s a fatal flaw.” What’s more, she added, “They set maintaining political subdivision boundaries” — such as city and county lines — “as their first and strongest factor. People don’t live in nice, little neat lines that have been drawn.”

A Fair Districts spokesman countered that the group’s plans state explicitly that compliance with the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 is their top criteria.

In a written statement, Curry stood firm defending her group’s proposals.

“Everything about our proposal encourages more competitive legislative and congressional seats,” she said. “We give actual Independents a guaranteed seat at the table for the first time, we require Independents to vote for maps in order for them to be final, and for the first time, we require that those maps give bona fide priority to competitiveness. And look at who is behind the Fair Districts plan — Democrats, Republicans, Independents, the League of Women Voters and scores of other civic groups.”

She concluded that the Fair Districts backers were happy to work toward a shared solution, including with Mark Grueskin, the attorney for the clients who sued to block their initiatives, “but by the same token, we aren’t going to roll over to the manufactured criticisms of the very people who created the gerrymandered status quo.”

The People Not Politicians initiatives are set for a hearing for review and comment from the Legislative Council staff and the Office of Legislative Legal Services at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday.

CORRECTION: Rosemary Rodriguez is the former state director for U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet.

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.