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Nicolais: Unaffiliated voters need strong voices on Colorado’s redistricting commissions

After passage of Amendments Y and Z in 2018, the judicial review panel choosing members must avoid unaffiliated applicants with clear partisan preferences

I registered as an unaffiliated voter on Jan. 19, 2017 — the day before President Donald Trump’s inauguration. In the interim I have been joined by a substantial number of Coloradans, now more than 40% of the electorate. 

As the decennial redistricting of congressional and legislative lines kicks off in earnest, that is a reality that must be recognized and honored.

Ten years ago I sat on the Colorado Reapportionment Commission tasked with redrawing the district boundaries for state House and state Senate seats. Despite the original proclamations to work in a bipartisan fashion, as the process drew to a close heated rhetoric and bickering between parties took center stage. 

Mario Nicolais

I know because I delivered some of the most caustic lines.

The passage of Amendments Y and Z in 2018 reimagined the entire process. Adopted in order to ensure “politically balanced” maps, deliver “an inclusive and meaningful … redistricting process,” and provide “representation to voters not affiliated with either of the state’s two largest parties,” the amendments granted new clout to unaffiliated voters.

Rather than allowing the two parties to struggle for dominance and engage in partisan gerrymandering, the new structure splits the commissions equally among Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters. Each receive four seats.

Additionally, map approval requires a super majority of eight votes, including at least two unaffiliated members. For the first time in our state’s history, unaffiliated interests should have an equal voice in the redistricting process.

Should have. 

Unfortunately, the pool of applicants who applied to serve on the commissions include a host of unaffiliated voters with clear partisan preferences. That poses a significant danger to the fresh start Coloradans clearly intended to begin.

While the majority of unaffiliated voters find themselves caught between the major parties, there are plenty who hold views too extreme to fit comfortably within either party structure. They actually fall to the left of the Democratic Party or to the right of the Republicans. 

Consequently, while they may not register with the party closest to them on the political spectrum, the acrimony they typically feel for the party on the other side is generally blinding. For example, can you imagine an “unaffiliated” voter who actively worked for Rep. Lauren Boebert would ever stand with Democrats against Republicans? Or that an “unaffiliated” voter identifying as a Democratic-Socialist would do vice-versa?

That type of allegiance would be traumatic for the purposes at the heart of Amendments Y and Z. Not only would it undermine the current redistricting commissions, but it would set a precedent that may live on for decades.

The shield against such an outcome lies with two panels of three retired judges apiece. Over the next six weeks they will choose the unaffiliated members of the commissions, beginning with two for the congressional commission this week.

They may have their work cut out for them.

While no support for a candidate, party or political active organization should automatically disqualify any individual, it should be weighed against the probability of effectuating the will of Coloradans who passed Amendments Y and Z. The more one-sided the activity of the individual, the less likely they would be to deliver “fair and effective” representation for unaffiliated voters.

Balancing these factors in order to winnow a list of several hundred down to four strong, independent unaffiliated representatives on each commission will be difficult. And the spotlight on their choices over the next six to nine months will quickly give us an indication of whether they got it right.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

If we hear yelling and screaming form both political parties, it may be a good indication that the review panel made the right call.

As unaffiliated voters continue to grow, in both raw numbers and political clout, their importance to the electoral prospects of elected officials will grow proportionally. It will be up to the unaffiliated members of the redistricting commission — and the judges choosing them — to ensure that happens.


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


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