In November 2018, Colorado voters passed two constitutional amendments to reform the redistricting process and ensure that neither political party could gerrymander districts in their favor.
Amendments Y and Z were the product of years of conversations between party leaders
who came to the table because they knew that a fair set of rules was better than rolling the dice on which party would be in power when redistricting came around.
Amendment Y reformed the process for the drawing of federal congressional districts, and by extension, districts for the Colorado State Board of Education and University of Colorado regent candidates. Amendment Z reformed the process for drawing of state House and state Senate districts.
But there’s one other set of partisan elected offices in Colorado that wasn’t included: county commissioners.
To be fair, this isn’t a big problem in the vast majority of Colorado counties. Almost all counties have three commissioners who must live in their districts, but they’re elected by the voters of the whole county.
While there’s still the risk that the districts are drawn to exclude particular people from running for office, these counties can’t draw districts that give an electoral advantage to Democrats or Republicans, nor can they draw districts to limit the voting power of minority communities.
But there are three Colorado counties that elect some or all of their commissioners by individual districts, and in those counties, there’s nothing in the law requiring them to draw fair maps.
Arapahoe, El Paso and Weld counties will be redrawing their district maps this year, and we have a chance to hold them to the same high standards we’ve established for state and federal districts.
Fortunately, we don’t have to start from scratch because Amendments Y and Z have shown us the way. There was such strong support for the bipartisan compromise in these amendments that they both earned unanimous support from the state legislature, and each gained 71% support from the voters.
I am sponsoring House Bill 1047 in the Colorado legislature this year to apply the bulk of the provisions of Y and Z to counties that elect commissioners by district. These provisions include fair criteria for drawing of districts, maps drawn by nonpartisan staff, robust public participation, and judicial review.
And while I acknowledge that requiring maps to be drawn by independent commissions would be ideal, I recognize that county budgets are tighter than the state budget. Thus, the bill encourages but does not require independent commissions.
As such, passing this bill is just the first step. Even more important will be the public participation that follows. Citizens in these counties will need to show up to hearings and talk about the diverse communities in their counties and what fair representation means to them.
While the bill primarily impacts three counties in the first year, it is my hope that a fair redistricting process will give other counties the reassurance they need to make the change from three commissioners elected at large to five commissioners elected by district.
My home county, Jeffco, has more residents than the entire state of Wyoming, so when candidates have to run countywide, most voters never meet them face-to-face. Furthermore, it is the view of many voting rights advocates that at-large districts can be racially discriminatory.
As an example, I don’t believe there’s ever been a Black, Latinx or Asian-American member of the Jeffco School Board, and I can only think of one person of color to ever serve on the Jeffco Board of Commissioners.
This is common sense. We all know there’s a long history of partisan gerrymandering in this country. Let’s root it out at every level.
HB 1047 has already passed its first hurdle: an initial committee meeting on March 4. If you agree with the goals of this bill, email your county commissioners and your state legislators today and ask them to support it as it moves through the legislative process.
Chris Kennedy, Democrat of Lakewood, represents Jefferson County’s District 23 in the Colorado House of Representatives.
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