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Voters cast their ballots in downtown Denver on Tuesday, June 30, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Delays by the U.S. Census Bureau in sharing detailed population data are threatening to upend Colorado’s new redistricting process ahead of the 2022 election, injecting uncertainty into a politically fraught undertaking that will affect the state’s political landscape for the next decade.

Because of slowdowns related to COVID-19, the Trump administration’s failed efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, and data anomalies, the Census Bureau isn’t expected to provide the population information to Colorado until sometime this summer. The data was supposed to be in by March 31 — at the latest. 

The delay means it’s unlikely that two new, independent commissions will have enough time to redraw Colorado’s legislative and congressional maps in time to meet September deadlines set in the state constitution when voters passed Amendments Y and Z in 2018. The amendments were sent to voters by the legislature and completely overhauled the way districts are drawn in Colorado.

If the deadlines aren’t met, nonpartisan legislative staff will draw the new maps instead, putting a big damper on the intent of Amendments Y and Z and the bipartisan, much-heralded agreement that led to their passage. The amendments are aimed at removing political maneuvering around the once-in-a-decade redistricting and giving the public more say in the task. 

“There was not just bipartisan support, but unanimous support among the 100 legislators (for the new process). And both Y and Z passed by wide margins,” said Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Parker Republican. “It’s a shame that we are in this situation.”

MORE: The negotiations that led to Amendments Y and Z, ending one of Colorado’s longest-running political feuds

Top lawmakers in the Colorado General Assembly are now scrambling to respond and salvage the new redistricting process. The stakes are high, with Colorado expected to add an eighth congressional seat in 2022 due to population growth and partisan power at the statehouse potentially hanging in the balance. 

The new problems with the redistricting process come after state officials initially struggled to get enough applicants to be on the legislative and congressional map-drawing committees. There were also concerns that not enough applicants from underrepresented groups sought to serve on the panels, whose members are being selected by judges in the coming weeks. 

Colorado isn’t the only state where redistricting plans are in trouble because of Census Bureau delays. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that New Jersey and Virginia were planning to redraw their legislative districts ahead of elections this year. Meanwhile, California, Missouri, Maine, Ohio, South Dakota and Washington all have constitutional redistricting deadlines in the coming months ahead of the 2022 election, similar to Colorado’s.

Colorado’s congressional districts. (Handout)

Texas’ legislature may have to be called into a special session because of the Census Bureau’s slowdown. 

Colorado’s nonpartisan redistricting commission staff informed top legislative leaders Monday about why the delays are so problematic.

“We knew for a little while now that the timeline was going to be called into question because of the census,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat. “It’s become much more clear now the impact.”

The detailed population numbers were expected to arrive by March 31, officials said, but the data now may not arrive until July 31 — if not later.

“The Census Bureau has more or less acknowledged that they won’t be able to meet that deadline,” Jerry Barry, a nonpartisan staffer with the Office of Legislative Legal Services, told top lawmakers on Monday. “We have heard that it will be sometime this fall.”

Barry recommended that leading Democrats and Republicans quickly draft a bill to push back the map-drawing deadlines — now set at Sept. 1 for congressional districts and Sept. 15 for legislative ones — and then ask the Colorado Supreme Court to weigh in about whether state lawmakers can legally pass a measure altering the constitutional deadlines.

The legislature does not inherently have the power to alter the state constitution by passing a bill. That’s why lawmakers will have to ask the state Supreme Court if, given the extenuating circumstances, the alterations are OK.

“The only avenue the legislature has, because we don’t have the authority to amend the constitution and there isn’t time to refer a question to the voters, (is to seek) an opinion,” Holbert said.

Because of the pandemic, Colorado Supreme Court allowed the legislature last year to sidestep its constitutional requirement to meet for 120 consecutive days. The legislature’s lawyers see the request to alter the redistricting deadlines as being similar. 

(The Colorado Supreme Court is required to review the final maps and approve or reject them by the end of 2021 and pass them along to the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office.)

Holbert said lawmakers might have anticipated delays in census data being reported when drafting Amendments Y and Z and provided some flexibility around the deadlines. But at this point the only thing to do is find a way to respond. And his Democratic colleagues agree.

“We are just where we are,” said House Speaker Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat. “So, let’s figure out a way to move forward.”

It’s unclear how long the legislature would seek to push back the map-drawing deadlines. Fenberg said if it’s a month or two, there really wouldn’t be that much of a difference. 

The Colorado House chambers on the first day of Colorado’s special legislative session on Nov. 30, 2020. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Such an extension, however, would give candidates less time to decide which races to run in and likely create an even more frantic election cycle. A number of top politicians are watching closely to see where Colorado’s eighth congressional district is drawn. The new map is likely to have major ripple effects across the political landscape. 

Fenberg is trying to find the silver lining. “I don’t think it’s the end of the world,” he said of a possible delay. “It might be, frankly, a positive thing.”

Fenberg points out that the pandemic will make it difficult for the independent redistricting commissions to meet and get statewide input since in-person gatherings are still frowned upon.

“There’s all kinds of reasons why right now is not a great period to be kicking off the redistricting process,” Fenberg said.

The upshot for proponents of the redistricting changes are that even with the delays, the process will not be in the hands of the legislature as was the case before Amendments Y and Z. Even if the independent panels can’t draw the maps, nonpartisan legislative staff will take the reins, meaning the influence of party politics will still be minimized.

The downside is it will be difficult to solicit and consider public input in the way Amendments Y and Z envisioned. 

“It might not look exactly like the way we planned it when we wrote Y and Z,” Fenberg said, “but there’s still going to be some big changes.”

The Colorado Sun —

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Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage.

A Colorado College graduate, Jesse worked at The Denver Post from June 2014 until July 2018, when he joined The Sun. He was also an intern at The Gazette in Colorado Springs and The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, his hometown.

Jesse has won awards for long form feature writing, public service reporting, sustained coverage and deadline news reporting.

Email: Twitter: @jesseapaul