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People vote by dropping off their ballots in the final day before Election Day in Denver, CO, November 2, 2020. (Kevin Mohatt, Special to The Colorado Sun)

El Paso County isn’t as Republican as it used to be. 

Unaffiliated voters now make up the largest share of the county’s registered voters at 43%, with Republicans coming in second with 36%. And that has translated into changes at the ballot box. In November, Democrat Joe Biden won nearly 43% of El Paso’s vote, compared with Hillary Clinton, who won just 33% of the county’s vote in 2016.

Despite the shift, all five members of the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners are Republican. A Democrat hasn’t held a seat on the panel since the 1970s. 

Now, El Paso County Democrats are seizing on a proposal from Democratic state lawmakers that they hope will give them more control over the redistricting process, which is currently overseen by county commissioners. 

Democrats have gained significant ground in El Paso County in recent years, electing two Democrats to the state House and Senate, said Robert Nemanich, a Colorado Springs resident who is active in the El Paso County Democratic Party. 

“The numbers are starting to speak for themselves,” Nemanich said. 

Independent boards will redraw Colorado’s legislative and congressional districts this year through a public process created by two constitutional amendments — Y and Z — voters approved in 2018. State law, however, has very few rules for how county commissions draw their districts. And that, some state lawmakers argue, leaves open the possibility for voters to get shut out and for political interests to steer the process. 

Legislation from Democratic state lawmakers would create a new set of guidelines for how county commissioner districts are drawn. House Bill 1047 would allow for the creation of independent commissions to conduct the process and hold public hearings, and specifies the factors that commissions must consider in redrawing local boundaries. It also adds language to prohibit gerrymandering. 

The bill is an attempt to take the rules for redistricting approved by voters under Amendments Y and Z and apply them to counties, said state Rep. Chris Kennedy, a Lakewood Democrat and one of the bill’s prime sponsors. State Sen. Pete Lee, a Democrat from El Paso County, is also a prime sponsor. 

It’s especially important as Colorado’s population grows, Kennedy said. The counties that attract the most growth may consider expanding their number of elected representatives and redraw district boundaries as part of that process. 

“I think that this will make sure that neither political party is able to hold advantage over these redistricting processes, and that it will be done fairly to ensure that the interests of the people are put ahead of the interests of the politicians,” Kennedy said in a March 4 presentation to the House State, Civic, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee. 

The bill would currently affect just Arapahoe, El Paso and Weld counties, the three Colorado counties with five commissioners, where some or all are elected by district. Most other counties only have three members who just live in their district and run at-large. 

Pikes Peak rises above downtown Colorado Springs. Access to the mountains makes Colorado a desirable place to live. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

All three counties that would be affected by House Bill 1047 have taken neutral positions on the bill after proposed changes were made by Kennedy, but have expressed concerns about the legislation. A version of the bill introduced last year would have made the creation of an independent commission mandatory, but Kennedy removed that provision after facing major opposition from counties over the potential cost of that requirement.

“Knowing that Democrats control the House and Senate and governorship, we were concerned if we decided to take a strictly-opposed position it would be rammed through anyway,” said El Paso County Commissioner Stan VanderWerf.

Commissioners in Arapahoe County, where the board has three Democrats and two Republicans, have also raised concerns. 

“We think this is unnecessary and it singles out just three counties,” said Nancy Jackson, the Democratic chair of the Arapahoe Board of County Commissioners. 

The legislation also adds language to prohibit commissions from approving maps that aim to protect incumbents, candidates or any political party, or which deliberately box out certain communities. Commissions must also, “to the extent reasonably possible,” consider maps that maximize the number of politically competitive districts. 

As more Colorado counties are poised to grow, Kennedy said the legislation would ensure transparency for both parties, rather than “rolling the dice on whether the other party is in power when it comes time to redistrict.” 

The fact that El Paso County’s board has long been occupied by one party speaks to a need to change the process, Democratic activists say. 

“As we grow as a population, we need increasingly more government administration … and instead of a diverse and competitive board of county commissioners, we have one party that is very ideologically bound,” said Stephanie Vigil, an El Paso County Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for a Colorado House seat in November. Vigil lost to Republican Rep. Andy Pico, a former Colorado Springs city councilman.

“In my mind, the sustainable path forward here is not to continue to put people in charge of redistricting, who cannot possibly be unbiased about it, wait for them to maybe do something wrong and then file a lawsuit,” Vigil said. 

That’s rankling the county’s GOP commissioners and top elections official, who have pushed back at claims by Democrats that the board has drawn districts to protect its majority. El Paso County’s commissioners see the legislation as another attempt by Democratic state lawmakers to insert themselves in a local issue. 

“I guess the question I have is: What’s broken?’” Chuck Broerman, El Paso County Clerk and Recorder, asked. “Are the citizens being represented? I believe so … And how many years has this statute been in place, and it’s worked well? I think this has a decidedly political taint to it.” 

Few existing rules for Colorado counties

In Colorado counties with fewer than 70,000 residents, county commissions have three elected members. Counties with a population of 70,000 or more can vote to expand the board to five representatives.

Kennedy said he became interested in the issue when some advocates proposed expanding Jefferson County’s board to five members to increase political representation for the growing county. A proposed ballot initiative didn’t get enough signatures to move forward. 

House Bill 1047 zeros in on counties where commissioners are elected by district, said Kennedy, because that’s the structure with the most potential for gerrymandering.

State Rep. Chris Kennedy, D-Lakewood, at the Colorado State Capitol on January 8, 2020 in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

State law has few requirements for what counties must consider when they conduct redistricting. In addition to following the federal Voting Rights Act — which prohibits racial discrimination in voting — state statutes only specify that districts must be drawn so they are “as nearly equal in population as possible” based on the latest federal census, and that they can’t be redrawn more frequently than every two years. 

House Bill 1047 would add language to: 

  • Encourage, but not require, counties to create an independent redistricting commission
  • Create opportunities for public input, including criteria for public hearings and the opportunities for the public to propose and present maps 
  • Prohibit improper communications between commissioners and commission staff
  • Require paid lobbyists to file disclosures
  • Establish priorities for the commissions to consider in drawing districts, including federal Voting Rights Act requirements, preserving communities of interest and political subdivisions, and maximizing the number of competitive districts

At a House committee hearing in March, counties raised concerns that the bill would create new, unfunded mandates for local government. 

“Our board has been, and continues to be, overwhelmed with dealing with a plethora of issues in the pandemic,” said Jackson, the Arapahoe commission chair. 

Kennedy made a number of changes to the legislation to address opposition from Arapahoe, El Paso and Weld counties, including eliminating a requirement that maps be reviewed by a judicial panel, which counties said would be costly and time-consuming. 

Rep. Rod Bockenfeld, a Watkins Republican who has served as an Arapahoe County commissioner, argues county governments are more focused on the nuts-and-bolts of administration and don’t have the kinds of partisan battles that consume other levels of government. 

He also questioned Democrats’ claims of gerrymandering in El Paso County, given that the party hasn’t filed any lawsuits challenging district maps. 

“My question is, in El Paso, if there is a concern why they didn’t file a lawsuit or openly challenge those particular maps,” Bockenfeld wondered. 

“I don’t like making laws for people who have the ability to challenge the law on their own,” he added. 

Because existing law has few requirements for counties, it’s difficult for parties to find grounds for a lawsuit, Kennedy said. 

Courts have also given commissions broad deference in redistricting, so long as they follow a transparent process and take in public input, said Scott Martinez, an elections attorney with Democratic ties. 

“If a commission follows an open and transparent process in drawing districts, then it’s unlikely any lawsuit would be successful,” Martinez said, “because they would have taken in community testimony to really understand what the interests of the community are.”

Broerman, the El Paso Clerk and Recorder, said his county has an open and transparent process that follows the state’s requirements. In addition to equal population, local officials prioritize drawing districts that are easy to identify on a map and that have as little impact on voters as possible, such as big shifts that would change what district many voters cast a ballot in or what years they cast a ballot, he said. 

Eva Henry, Steve O'Dorisio
Adams County Commissioner Steve O’Dorisio wipes his brow during a lengthy public hearing about strengthened oil and gas regulations. (Amanda K. Clark, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Maps proposed by the local Democratic Party in 2017 would have moved 22 precincts, which Broerman called “pretty radical.” 

He also argued that the county’s demographics make it hard to find pockets of Democrats. 

“I think it’s going to be extremely hard to maximize competitiveness in El Paso County, much like it would be in Boulder or Denver. It’s extremely difficult and creates, for the sake of that, wildly different looking districts,” Broerman said. “You will move people from one district to another, they’ll have to wait additional years to vote. … I think people don’t like that type of stuff.” 

The number of registered Republicans in El Paso County fell to 36% in January from 44% in January 2010, with unaffiliated voters growing to 43% of all voters over that same time period, a 10% gain. 

Nemanich, with the El Paso Democratic Party, said even if more voters are registering as unaffiliated, they’re casting ballots for Democrats. He also pointed to a number of concentrated El Paso County communities that are majority Democratic, such as Manitou Springs and some Colorado Springs neighborhoods, such as Old Colorado City and parts of downtown. 

“We have more and more people moving into Colorado Springs and El Paso, they’re registering as unaffiliated, and they’re tending to vote six to four for Democrats,” Nemanich said. 

Martinez, the election attorney, said the bill might be inconvenient for counties, but it puts the public’s interests front and center. 

“I think of this bill as a proactive bill to evolve the audience for redistricting to be the people, not the politicians,” Martinez said. 

House Bill 1047 passed the Colorado House on a party-line vote. It’s now under consideration in the state Senate, with its first hearing in the State, Veterans and Military Affairs committee on April 6. 

Thy Vo previously was a politics reporter for The Colorado Sun.