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Opinion Columns

Nicolais: Re-jiggering redistricting in Colorado

In ballot Amendments Y and Z, Colorado voters have the opportunity to strip power from partisan interest groups

As elections roll around again, political junkies across the state will again bemoan gerrymandered districts. Districts that run miles along a highway, weave through districts, or look like a salamander when drawn out, elicit the most ire from political activists.

My personal favorite in Colorado is state Senate District 16 which incorporates southwest Denver County, slips through a very narrow passage along the Chatfield Reservoir beach to include the mountainous western portion of Jefferson County, and finally wraps around three other JeffCo Senate districts before ending up in Boulder County. Its ridiculousness is laughable.

This November, though, Colorado voters get the opportunity to make a positive change. Referred to the ballot by a unanimous, bipartisan vote of the state legislature, Amendment Y would dramatically change the process Colorado uses to redraw congressional lines every 10 years. Likewise, Amendment Z reconfigures the process related to state legislative boundaries.

The current system adopted in the 1970s intended to reduce political influence on the process. While the General Assembly retained oversight of congressional redistricting, it ceded reapportionment of the 100 state legislative districts to an 11-member commission. Despite good intentions, the current system failed. I know because I served on the 2011 Reapportionment Commission.

Working more than six months on maps, the commission held hearings, heard testimony, and debated the relative merit of alternate proposals.

For most of that time, the process worked well. Yes, both parties organized volunteers to testify with pre-written talking points, and the members of the commission disagreed on various maps, but we also heard real concerns from communities and worked together to find common ground.

Things got ugly just before the end, when the final maps had to be submitted. When the stakes mattered, everything came down to a raw, bare-knuckled political fight. I engaged as rigorously as any member, and more so than a few. When things counted, both sides abandoned the veil of creating the districts best suited to Coloradans for those that most benefited Democrats or Republicans.

After my front-row experience under the current system, I know that Colorado deserves better. When proposals began circulating several years ago to create a constitutional change, I actively supported the measures. While the original proposals had bipartisan support, several interest groups raised legitimate concerns that kept the changes off the ballot in 2016.

But like any good policy, the drafters worked with concerned communities to craft a better proposal that incorporated protections everyone could agree on. Consequently, when the General Assembly voted to refer the current form to the ballot earlier this year, not a single legislator voted against it.

The amendments take specific aim against political interests “primarily concerned about maintaining their own political power at the expense of and effective representation.”

The new commissions will have 12 members filled by random draw among any qualified Coloradan submitting an application to serve. The selection process will be overseen by a panel of judges, and the commission will be drawn to reflect Colorado’s racial, ethnic, gender, and geographic diversity. Most importantly, final maps for submission require the affirmative vote of eight members, a supermajority, for approval. Consequently, the new process doesn’t allow one party or another to impose its will with a bare majority.

If Colorado passes these two ballot initiatives, it will become a test case for the rest of the country. No other state employs a system that so aggressively seeks to undercut the current partisan status quo. Given the divisive political climate across the country today, a success in Colorado could be emulated by other states in the future.

While redistricting represents the most inside of insider baseball in politics, Colorado has an opportunity to change that before the next round begins in a few years. Amendments Y and Z represent the best chance for Colorado to ensure future legislators represent all Coloradans, and not just Democrats or Republicans.

Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, healthcare, and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq