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A map of Colorado's seven congressional districts. (Handout)

Now that the 12 members of Colorado’s independent legislative and congressional redistricting commissions have been selected, attention is quickly turning toward what to do about the fact the panels won’t have the U.S. Census Bureau data they need to draw new maps until Sept. 30.

Gov. Jared Polis, the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Colorado General Assembly, and the co-chairs of the campaign for Amendments Y and Z, the 2018 ballot measures forming the new commissions this week urged the congressional redistricting panel to push ahead using population estimates from 2019.

There are, however, questions about the legality of doing so.

Jeremiah Barry, a legislative attorney and legal counsel for the congressional redistricting commission, said he isn’t opposed to using the estimated data to get the commission’s work started, but he thinks the Colorado Supreme Court should be asked if that’s OK.

State lawmakers are now planning to do just that, said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat.

Legislative leaders were initially going to ask the Colorado Supreme Court to push back September and December map-drawing deadlines placed in the Colorado Constitution by Amendments Y and Z. That’s no longer in the cards.

“It wouldn’t even be worthwhile for us to ask the court if we can change it because we clearly can’t,” Fenberg said.

He said the plan now is to ask the Colorado Supreme Court if it’s OK for the redistricting commissions to get to work using the 2019 estimates. “We think it’s quite clear — the nonpartisan staff have questions about it — on if they can use preliminary information or not,” Fenberg said.

So how would it all work? The estimated data — collected over five years as part of the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey — is fairly accurate and could provide a solid basis for the final maps, Fenberg said.

“(The estimated data) would tell us enough to make a preliminary plan that then can be used to shop around to the town-hall hearings,” Fenberg said. “And then, come Sept. 30, we’ll get the final data and (the commissions) will update the preliminary plan to be more accurate. It will be tight, but I think they can still get the maps done by the time we need them done.”

Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, on stage. Colorado lawmakers and Gov. Jared Polis attended a post-session forum hosted by The Colorado Sun and CBS 4 at the University of Denver on May 13, 2019. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Ultimately it will be up to the commissions to decide if they want to use the American Community Survey data to get started. The legislature and governor can make suggestions, but it’s not up to them.

The congressional maps have to be approved by the Colorado Supreme Court by Dec. 15, per the state constitution. The date is Dec. 29 for the legislative maps.

The commissions are supposed to adopt final maps in September, but Fenberg believes the deadlines can be pushed back by the commissions themselves.

Delays in the redistricting process could toss Colorado politics into turmoil as candidates debate which contests to run in. The state is expected to pick up an eighth congressional seat this year because of its growing population, and already a number of big-name Democrats and Republicans are lining up to seek the position.

Barry, speaking to the congressional redistricting commission on Monday, urged commissioners to balance this year’s delays with the lasting impact of their work. A slower process may make it difficult for politicians to figure out which races to run in now, but there’s the future to consider as well.

“These districts will be in existence for a decade,” Barry said. “So the work of the commission is extremely important, even if it may have some impact on the election cycle in 2022.”

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There may be some good news on the horizon, however.

The Associated Press reported on Thursday that states under pressure to redraw congressional and legislative districts but facing a delay in the release of the needed data may be able to get the numbers in an outdated format in August, more than a month earlier than the planned official release date.

The redistricting data will be available in mid-to-late August, but they will be in an older data format that may be difficult for some states to work with since they require extra steps to be taken to make them usable, Al Fontenot, the bureau’s associate director of decennial census programs, told a Census Bureau advisory committee.

The states of Ohio and Alabama promptly sued the statistical agency, saying the delay would undermine their ability to redraw districts. The Alabama lawsuit also challenged a new method being used by the Census Bureau for the first time for protecting participants’ privacy, which the state argues produces faulty numbers.

The delay in releasing the redistricting data has sent states scrambling to come up with alternative plans because many will not get the data until after their legal deadlines for drawing new districts, requiring them to either rewrite laws or ask courts to allow them a free pass because of the delay. Candidates may not know yet whether they will live in the district they want to run in by the filing deadline. In some cases, if fights over new maps drag into the new year, primaries may have to be delayed.

Even if Colorado gets some data in August, nonpartisan staffers at the Colorado legislature think it will take some time to get the maps finalized. But they say that having the data sooner is better.

The Census Bureau was supposed to send states detailed population data in March. The delays stem from slowdowns related to COVID-19, the Trump administration’s failed efforts to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census and data anomalies.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Jesse Paul

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is...

Thy Vo

Thy Vo is a freelance journalist and former Colorado Sun staff member. Twitter: @thyanhvo