Skip to contents
Politics and Government

Redistricting commissions diverge on prison gerrymandering, and the 3rd Congressional District revisited

This is the second edition of Remapping Colorado, our free, pop-up newsletter on redistricting.

  • Credibility:

Colorado’s two independent redistricting commissions diverged this week over a policy to change how people living in state prisons are counted in the mapmaking process, with those against the change citing the commissions’ independence from partisan politics. 

The commissions were considering whether to implement a law passed by Democratic state lawmakers in 2020, House Bill 1010. The legislation requires the state to count more than 14,000 Colorado prisoners at their last home address rather than at the prison where they are incarcerated, known as prisoner reallocation. It would essentially shift population (and thus, representation) from rural counties like Fremont and Crowley where prisons are located to more urban counties like Denver, El Paso and Adams. 

Attorneys for the redistricting commissions say that, based on a Colorado Supreme Court opinion earlier this year, the panels can decide whether they want to use the law as they draw new maps ahead of the 2022 election. The argument is that the court, responding to a separate bill about redistricting data, said it’s unconstitutional for lawmakers to try to dictate a process that voters removed them from as part of Amendments Y and Z. 

After a heated debate Thursday, the Independent Congressional Redistricting Commission fell short of the eight votes needed to move forward with prisoner reallocation. Commissioner Bill Leone, a Republican and one of five commissioners opposed to reallocation, said it’s a “violently charged topic” that is too partisan for the independent panel to take up. 

“For our commission to take sides in that would be, to me, the death of our ability to claim that we are an objective, nonpartisan commission. I would rather see us do nothing,” Leone said. 

“An independent commission means that we can decide whether or not to follow what the state bill says about this issue,” Commissioner Paula Espinoza, a Democrat, said. 

The policy, meanwhile, was adopted handily by the Independent Legislative Redistricting Commission, with only two of the 12 commissioners voting against reallocation. Reallocation will have a much bigger impact on the legislative districts, given that the number of people in each district is smaller. 

Republican Commissioner Aislinn Kottwitz, who voted against the policy along with Democrat Gary Horvath, argued it would set a bad precedent for future commissions. “To me it opens the door for questioning other aspects of the census data,” she said. 

“Is it not our job not to create a map that would have the potential to create a legislature that truly represents Colorado’s interests?” said unaffiliated Commissioner Samuel Greenidge, who supported the policy. “And this is a way of, in a small way, folding in the interest of prisoners into that legislature and into future legislation.” 

Welcome to Remapping Colorado 2021, a pop-up newsletter bringing you the latest on the state’s once-a-decade redistricting process. If you don’t already get our newsletter by email, click here to sign up. You can send feedback and tips to thy@coloradosun.com or fill out this form to let us know what else we should be covering. 

“As an African American in Cañon City, there aren’t a lot of people there who look like me. Their challenges were different,”

Robert Johnson, a formerly incarcerated man from Denver who served time in Cañon City, testifying at a public hearing in Englewood on why he supports reallocation.

Advocates were swift in their condemnation of the congressional commission’s vote. 

“I missed the part in (Amendments) Y & Z that vested the commission with superpowers to retroactively veto laws / unilaterally decide which laws they deem applicable. I’m at a loss,” Rep. Kerry Tipper, a Lakewood Democrat who was a prime sponsor of House Bill 1010, wrote in a tweet

At a public hearing in Greeley Saturday, Colorado Springs resident Chandra Wilkins chastised the congressional commission.

“With this decision you are hurting multiple communities of interest,” Wilkins said, testifying remotely. “There are many of us feeling we are not being heard.” 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Big votes ahead of big deadlines

A lot has happened since our last newsletter. The big one: 2020 census data was released Thursday, which allows redistricting staff to start prepping their first maps based on the new statistics. 

MORE: Colorado’s population grew at twice the national rate between 2010 and 2020. Here’s where the boom was biggest.

Both commissions also took some key votes last week.  

After a lot of debate in subcommittees, the congressional commission on Thursday adopted a new definition of political competitiveness that averages the results from eight statewide races: 2016 president and U.S. Senate; 2018 Colorado governor, attorney general, treasurer, secretary of state and University of Colorado regent-at-large; and the 2020 U.S. Senate race. 

The preliminary map drawn by nonpartisan staff uses a combination of voter registration data and a single race, the 2018 Colorado attorney general contest. 

The legislative commission, meanwhile, hasn’t adopted a specific policy on competitiveness and hasn’t set a date to vote on the issue either. 

On Friday, legislative commissioners voted unanimously to adopt a policy that would allow redistricting staff to look at the home addresses of incumbent state senators who were elected in 2020, in order to avoid putting two of those senators in the same district in the new maps. 

That’s aimed at avoiding a conflict in state law, which requires every district to have an elected representative, but also says senators who have time left on their term when the districts change are entitled to serve out their full four years. The preliminary map created by staff creates seven districts with two incumbents, and two districts where those incumbents would still have time left to serve when the district lines change in 2022. 

The legislative commission also adopted a new timeline for the release of staff maps, additional public hearings and deadlines for approving a final plan. 

The first staff map for congressional districts, using 2020 census data, will be released Sept. 5 and presented to the congressional commission on Sept. 6 (Labor Day). The first legislative staff maps will be released Sept. 13 and presented to the legislative commission on Sept. 14. 

PUBLIC HEARINGS: This week’s schedule: 7 p.m. Wednesday in Highlands Ranch; 11 a.m. Friday in Woodland Park; 7 p.m. Friday in Pueblo; 11 a.m. Saturday in Cañon City; and 7 p.m. Saturday in Buena Vista. Check the full schedule here.

Better Know a District: Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District evolution

The 3rd Congressional District has seen plenty of redistricting changes through the decades. (Eric Lubbers and Sandra Fish, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District wasn’t always a Western Slope district, as former Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams pointed out to us last week.

Take a look at the maps from 1962 through the initial draft proposal for this year’s redistricting. 

In 1962, the district, then one of four, was located in southeastern Colorado. In 1972, it stretched across the entire southern part of the state. It was in 1982 that the 3rd District began to center on the Western Slope. 

One common element since 1962: Pueblo County was included in the 3rd. 

But some in Pueblo are asking to be removed from the 3rd for the next decade. The initial proposal from nonpartisan staff removes Pueblo County from the district and includes several other counties west of the Continental Divide to make up for the population loss.

Those initial proposals are based on 2019 population estimates. Now that census numbers are in, staff will post the next congressional map online Sept. 5 and present them to the commission Sept. 6. But it may be the end of the year before we know what the 3rd District will look like for the next 10 years.

What you’re asking about Colorado redistricting

Colorado’s redistricting priorities. (Colorado Redistricting Commissions via Twitter.)

QUESTION: In the past, the redistricting effort after a census was to try and make every district roughly equal in Republican, Democratic and unaffiliated voters. How is this going to be achieved under the changes voters approved for this new process?

ANSWER: The idea that districts would be balanced based on political affiliation is called competitiveness. 

But that concept is last on the list of priorities for the two commissions, behind drawing districts with equal population, contiguous geography, compliance with the 1964 Voting Rights Act, preserving communities of interest and compactness.

Not only that, but competitiveness is difficult to measure, especially when planning for the next 10 years. Do you use voter registration, results of past elections, a combination of those?

There was plenty of disagreement among the congressional commission about using eight races to try to take the political temperature of a district. Some commissioners wanted to see voter registration included or felt the formula was too simplistic. Others said it’s impossible to come up with a perfect formula, especially since data is incomplete or unavailable the further back you go. 

They also got some feedback from a key author of Amendments Y and Z, which created the commissions. Mark Grueskin, an attorney and registered lobbyist on behalf of Fair Lines Colorado, pointed to language in the amendments that defines competitive as the “reasonable potential” that the party affiliation of a district’s representative will change at least once a decade. 

He wanted the commission to look at a series of races in 2014 where voters picked Republican candidates and elected for Democrats four years later in 2018. That, Grueskin said, would capture a district’s “openness to change.”

Got a question? Fill out this form and we’ll do our best to answer it!

What else you should be reading

We just think this is funny.

>> RURAL vs. URBAN: The 2020 census data shows a continuing trend of people leaving rural America and moving to urban centers, setting the stage for a state power struggle, Stateline reports. 

>>REDISTRICTING IN THE WEST: The University of Virginia’s Center for Politics team takes a look at how the lines are being drawn in western states, and often it’s by independent commissions like Colorado’s.

>>ADAMS COUNTY: For the first time in its history, the majority of residents in Adams County are people of color. The Washington Post looks at how Adams County represents the demographic future of many American cities. 

>> ICYMI: Latino advocates call for Colorado’s new congressional and legislative maps to give them influence reflecting both their long histories in the state and growing population


Thanks for reading! Don’t forget to let us know the questions you have about redistricting.

— Thy and Fish


We believe vital information needs to be seen by the people impacted, whether it’s a public health crisis, investigative reporting or keeping lawmakers accountable. This reporting depends on support from readers like you.