Years ago, I sat in on a chess game at Brother Jeff’s Cultural Center, and overheard  an elder explaining how politicians can choose their own voters. All they had to do was change the boundaries of a district.  

“Gerrymandering,” he called it. “How undemocratic,” I thought. 

They can just draw the lines that make up our community, and make us into whatever group they want us if it serves them?  How is this legal?

Theo Wilson

The Berlin Conference of 1884 comes to mind. It’s the year the German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, gathered the European imperialist powers over a map of Africa.  There, they chopped and sliced Africa according to the resources beneath the soil they desired, the human consequences be damned.  Violating self-determined tribal boundaries was devastating and strategic, leading to much of the infighting we still see today.  

The collective identity of any community is tied to geography. To deny that collective its identity is a blatant power move that must be put in its proper imperialist historical context.

In American politics, the preferred resource isn’t gold, diamonds or ivory … it’s votes.  The mining process frequently involves dictating to Black and Brown communities what their boundaries are without their consent. 

Like the European colonialism in Africa, they care not how and where these communities define themselves as long as powerful interests are given the authority to define it for them.

With the census data nearing publication, we must stop history from repeating. Luckily, Coloradans are on top of it this time. 

Three years ago, we passed state Amendments Y and Z, with a pretty sizable majority. 

This ended the practice of redistricting of congressional seats being exclusively in the hands of the Colorado General Assembly.  

ANOTHER VIEW: A Colorado redistricting commission member offers a look under the hood at the process

These amendments set up two redistricting commissions for congressional and legislative map drawing, 12-person panels made up of people who applied to participate or were nominated by lawmakers. They were chosen by six former state Supreme Court and Appeals Court judges. 

To be fair, both major parties in Colorado have attempted to redraw district maps to favor their agenda.  In 2003, the Midnight Gerrymander from the GOP was considered a near catastrophic abuse of the rule of law.  It was shortly struck down by the Colorado Supreme Court.  

Then, in 2011, the Democrats submitted a map without Republicans knowing.  Their map was voted down.  

But, as well-intentioned as Amendments Y and Z are, there’s no language where it’s needed the most: the city council, where citizen oversight is badly needed. It seems that if Y and Z are to have any teeth, an ordinance for redistricting oversight at the local level should match the measures at the state and federal levels.

Consider this plain fact: At different levels, district maps don’t match.  I always assumed they did, but they don’t. In fact, if you were to lay a map of Aurora’s city council wards over its legislative districts, you could easily have opposing politicians trying to do opposing things to the same area and group of people.  There’s no uniformity, especially without the consent of the actual people paying taxes there.

In recent American history, the GOP has been notorious for gerrymandering based on bias, which landed them in hot water in Virginia.  Our state is not immune to such systemic corruption, even with citizen oversight. 

Back in April, Colorado’s Independent Congressional Redistricting Commission had to remove its then-chair, Republican Danny Moore, after he questioned the 2020 election results on Facebook. Who’s to say what impact that particular mindset could have when drawing districts? 

However foreboding that may seem, even less citizen oversight exists on the level of city council.  Something has to be done before it’s too late. 

Colorado has already decided to be on the cutting edge of citizen-involved redistricting.  But, until it exists on the level of city council, history looms as large as the Berlin Conference over our local democracy, ready to repeat. 

CORRECTION: This column was updated July 2, 2021, at 11:36 a.m. to correct the description of how the state’s redistricting commissions were created.

Theo Wilson of Denver is a poet, speaker, author and activist.

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