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A preliminary map of Colorado's congressional districts, including a new 8th Congressional District. This is the first draft presented by nonpartisan staff to Colorado's Independent Congressional Redistricting Commission on June 23, 2021.

With September’s constitutional deadlines looming for the submission of final redistricting maps, Colorado’s independent congressional and legislative redistricting commissions are calling on the Colorado Supreme Court to move deadlines and buy more time. 

“This is an extraordinary and highly challenging redistricting year,” the Independent Congressional Redistricting Commission wrote in a request to the court earlier this month.  

The consequences of failing to adopt final maps by the end of the year could echo into 2022. In a brief submitted Thursday to the Supreme Court, the Secretary of State’s Office said the court must adopt final maps before the end of 2021, or else require the June 28, 2022, primary election be pushed back. 

Approving maps any later would jeopardize the whole 2022 election calendar.  

“This is because administering the earliest stages of Colorado’s elections is akin to carefully positioning a domino set — after the first have begun to fall, it becomes virtually impossible to shift later deadlines without imperiling the remainder of the election calendar,” according to the secretary of state’s brief.

This year is the first time the redistricting process is being overseen by two independent citizen commissions, created by voters under Amendments Y and Z, which passed in 2018. To complicate their pilot run, the U.S. Census Bureau will be more than four months late in releasing the final, detailed population data, which will now arrive on or after Aug. 16. 

That would give nonpartisan redistricting staff two weeks to crunch the numbers and draw new maps before the Sept. 1 constitutional deadline for congressional maps to be delivered to the Supreme Court. It would be “physically impossible” to meet that deadline if the census data arrives any later, Jeremiah Barry, a legislative attorney advising the commissions, said earlier this month. 

The commissions are now asking the Supreme Court for a reprieve by pushing their deadlines to submit final maps to the end of October, with the goal of the court adopting final maps, as scheduled, by the end of the year. 

But if the court doesn’t extend the deadline, the congressional commission wants permission to take a route they oppose: use preliminary data to complete their mandated staff maps — adjusting them later to incorporate final data — and possibly cut already scheduled public hearings to save time. 

Marco Dorado, Colorado state director for All on the Line, an affiliate of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, questioned why the commissions didn’t seek clarity sooner. 

“We’re pretty concerned about … why is this being asked now? The commissions knew this would be an issue when they convened,” Dorado said. 

The Supreme Court has not set a date for oral arguments.

A rejiggered schedule 

The congressional commission proposed a new schedule that would push back its Sept. 1 constitutional deadline for submission of a final map to the Supreme Court to the end of October. 

The constitution currently requires nonpartisan staff to present at least three plans using final census data. This year, staff used preliminary data and survey estimates to draw their first map, which was released in June. 

Initially, the Census Bureau said it would release the final population data on Sept. 30, but opted to release the data in mid-August in a different format to get the information to states sooner. That, however, will require redistricting staff to reformat all the data. 

Under the new proposed timeline, staff would finish processing the data and present a new map by Sept. 15, then hold a series of additional public hearings on the updated maps. They would present second and third revised maps “only if necessary.” A final plan would be submitted to the court no later than Oct. 28, according to the congressional commission’s court filing. 

“Even if the commission submits its final plan on the last possible day, this court will have over two months to review and approve a final redistricting plan before the end of the calendar year,” according to the congressional commission’s request to the court. “This timing will allow the 2022 primary and general elections to proceed as scheduled with minimal disruption.” 

The Independent Legislative Redistricting Commission, which is responsible for state House and Senate maps, didn’t submit its own timing proposal, but told the court it would follow the same or a similar proposed schedule as the congressional commission. The legislative commission’s deadline to submit final maps is later, on Sept. 15. 

The public’s right to weigh in 

If the court doesn’t extend the deadlines, the congressional commission has asked to use the preliminary data to draw the second staff plan, updating the maps later based on final data. It also wants to cut back the number of planned statewide public hearings. 

That would be a last resort, and commissioners made clear in the court filing that they’d rather stick to a plan that gives the public the opportunity to comment on maps drawn with final population data. 

While it is the commissions’ Plan B, many groups are worried about how it would affect the public’s role in the once-a-decade process. 

The commissions scheduled 32 joint public hearings around the state, which began in early July and are scheduled through Aug. 28. The congressional commission is looking for the court’s blessing to cut back the number of hearings to 21, the minimum required by the constitution. 

The legislative commission hasn’t signaled support for the proposal to cut back public hearings, which the panels are holding together. They approved the current hearing schedule that runs through the end of August at a meeting last week.  

Congressional commissioners said they don’t want that to happen, but it may have to so staff can have enough time to work on final maps. 

“I understand it’s not perfect and people might feel slighted … but we can’t do (all of the scheduled hearings). We have to figure out a way to compress the schedule and do 21 hearings instead of 32 hearings,” congressional commissioner Bill Leone said at a subcommittee meeting earlier this month. 

The crowd at a joint public hearing of the Colorado Independent Congressional and Legislative Redistricting Commissions at Red Rocks Community College in Arvada on July 13, 2021. (Photo courtesy of commission staff)

Attendance at the hearings has been spotty so far, with the very first meetings on the Eastern Plains garnering just a handful of speakers and dozens at subsequent hearings on the more populous Front Range. 

Amanda Gonzalez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, said it’s already an “uphill battle” for outreach groups to get people involved in what can seem like an intimidating or arcane process, and it may take time for people to get involved. 

“I think getting the districts right is the right priority, because we’re not going to get another chance for a decade,” Gonzalez, urging the commissions not to cut opportunities for public comment, said. “These maps are only going to be as strong as the community engagement” 

Joe Jackson, executive director of the Colorado GOP, said the party doesn’t have concerns about changing deadlines, but that the commissions should not “truncate opportunities for public input” regardless of what the court says.

Dorado, the director of All on the Line Colorado, said the last two weeks of August are a crucial time to incorporate the views of the state’s minority communities. He pointed to public hearings scheduled at the end of August in communities with significant Hispanic populations including Pueblo, Brighton and Commerce City. 

The group has been ramping up public outreach efforts in recent weeks and was relying on the existing hearing schedule, he said. 

“It really throws a wrench in how we work with folks when there’s so much uncertainty about when the hearing will take place in their community,” Dorado said. 

Dorado and the Colorado Democratic Party also pointed to the importance of giving the public opportunities to comment on maps drawn with the final data, which will have more accurate data on the state’s significant population changes — including growing Hispanic communities — over the past decade. 

“We are hopeful that the maps will be finished on time, and that they will honor the communities that will be represented by officials in the districts for the next 10 years,” Democratic Party spokesman David Pourshoushtari said.

Delays to the 2022 Election

Once the Supreme Court adopts final maps, the secretary of state then has the task of reconfiguring precinct lines to match the new maps.

Each precinct must have 1,500 voters, a “time-consuming task [requiring] the manual re-assignment of voters displaced by precincts,” according to a court filing by Attorney General Phil Weiser’s office on behalf of the Secretary of State. 

Assuming the secretary of state could finish that work before the Jan. 31 deadline for approving new precinct maps, then there are a host of other deadlines: timelines for party caucuses where the nominating process begins, leading to county and state assemblies, the selection of candidates, finalizing and printing ballots. 

There’s also limited flexibility under federal election rules to push back the primary, with July 26, 2022 being the latest date the primary could be held, according to the Secretary of State.

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