By: Weston Zeike
“Colorful Colorado” is one nickname of the “Centennial State.” Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the state has been making headlines on the way it decided to color in its maps during the 2020 redistricting process.
Redistricting reform has received increasing attention in recent years, with Colorado being no exception to the national trend. In 2018, Colorado voters amended the Colorado Constitution to task an independent redistricting commission with drawing lines. Requiring 55% of the vote while receiving over 70%, these amendments gave the new independent redistricting commission authority to draw both state and congressional lines. Three years after the vote (and only months after the release of the requisite decennial census data release), we have a final congressional redistricting plan drawn by the commission.
While the commission is independent, it does not have authority to draw maps however it likes. It must comply with both federal law (“one person, one vote,” and the Voting Rights Act) and the Colorado Constitution. The Colorado Constitution requires that districts be compact, contiguous, and competitive, but also that they preserve communities of interest and political subdivisions. It specifically prohibits incumbent protection and political gerrymandering. Additionally, the commission has a few other abnormal considerations. First, because of population shifts, Colorado will be adding a Congressional seat, going from seven to eight after the 2020 cycle. Another issue that is far less unique to Colorado’s redistricting schedule is the delay of the 2020 census data and concerns of inaccurate census data due to the introduction of differential privacy.
Colorado has 4 Democratic and 3 Republican congress people, but over the years has become a solid blue state, voting for Joe Biden by 13% in the 2020 election. How, then, should an independent commission with the guidelines laid out above and a new congressional district to consider drawing a map? While there is no perfect answer, there are certainly some maps that would lead to more partisan outrage than others. Democrats were concerned that the process could lead to a 4-4 even split, despite feeling like the state was trending safely blue. Republicans were worried about a 7-1 Democratic map, which would effectively entrench Democratic control of the state’s seats. With the House of Representatives so evenly divided, the commission’s decisions could have national consequences.
Ultimately, the commission landed on a plan that is considered relatively safe for all seven incumbents, while creating an eighth swing district. The plan is considered to slightly favor Republicans but is not the doomsday scenario imagined by either party. Partisans on both sides may be unhappy with this plan considering their theoretical gains if they controlled redistricting. But the voters of Colorado asked for a redistricting plan absent partisan strong-arming. Time will tell how this particular redistricting plan adheres to the commission’s mission, and how independent commissions will be received by the public more broadly. The Colorado commission is aware of the spotlight on their process, commenting that they hope to “provide an example for the rest of the country.” And while the political parties may be frustrated, it’s not clear that the voters didn’t intend for that to be the outcome. Or as Larry David said, “A good compromise is when both parties are dissatisfied.”