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Nicolais: A little advice for redistricting commissions weighing competitiveness

Ten years ago the commission I served on made a simplistic mistake – one that current commissioners should learn from

A few weeks ago, I ambled up to a podium in the auditorium of Golden High School to address a joint session of the congressional and legislative redistricting commissions. Having sat in their seat a decade ago, I had a couple suggestions.

Trust the nonpartisan staff. They represent some of the finest public servants I have ever worked with.

Keep Lakewood as whole and consolidated as possible. I grew up in the city, live here now and have an unabashed bias toward my home community.

Most important, take the time to understand the complexities of competitive districts.

Mario Nicolais

Ten years ago, the commission I served on did not heed that final bit of advice. Instead, we stuck our collective thumbs in the air and tried to measure the political whirlwind via tactile perception. It did not work well.

In 2011, the commission used a single race, the 2010 state treasurer’s race, as a basis for measuring competitiveness. Any district where votes for that race were within 10 points was considered “competitive;” if the outcome was within five points, it was “highly competitive.”

Under that analysis, the state Senate map adopted by the commission yielded 21 “safe” seats (17 Democrats, 18 Republicans), five “competitive” districts (3 D, 2 R) and nine “highly competitive” toss ups (5 D, 4 R). Similarly, the state House map resulted in a 41 safe (18 D, 23 R), 16 competitive (12 D, 4 R) and eight highly competitive (4 D, 4R) configuration.

A decade of actual elections proved just how poorly our simplistic system worked.

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Despite allegedly holding a slim 34-31 advantage in the state House and trailing 17-18 in the state Senate, Democrats have dominated control of both houses. They won control of the House gavel in 2012 and have not relinquished it since; they won three of five Senate electoral cycles and currently enjoy a five-seat majority.

The percentage of Democrats in the legislature is significantly higher than the percentage of votes they tally across the state.

Not once did Democrats end up with fewer seats than projected. Not once did Republicans garner more than predicted.

No single factor led to that outcome more directly than the poor analysis we employed in 2011. Sure, individual races vary widely due to differences in candidates. National factors, particularly the hyper-polarization driven by former President Trump, play a significant role. And the Colorado Republican Party seems intent on amputating both its legs beneath the knees.

But aggregate results across a decade of elections do not lead to such lopsided results without a structural fault. 

Using a single race to measure competitiveness effectively ended in an extraordinary gerrymander for Democrats. Using one race not only failed to account for idiosyncrasies in that race, but it also ignored the precept that Democratic turnout tends to be lower in non-presidential years. Consequently, the commission’s analysis dramatically underestimated Democratic turnout in presidential years — or three out of the five elections held in the interim.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

The fix is simple. Use more races as the basis for measuring competitiveness. Use lots, as many as possible. 

That was exactly what Rob Witwer — who served with me in 2011 and, to my surprise, testified a few slots behind me in Golden — proposed. He created a six-race analysis we both argued for the commission to adopt 10 years ago. It predicted Democrats would regularly hold a 36-29 advantage in the House and a 19-16 majority in the Senate, far closer to the actual outcome.

The underlying advantage is easy to understand. The more races included, the less variations in any one can affect the overall trend line. I liken it to individual stocks versus a mutual fund: the former may vary wildly, but the latter is an aggregation meant to mirror the market as a whole.

The good news is that the commissions seem to be doing better than we did 10 years ago. The legislative commission is debating between three or six races. The congressional commission is doing even better, opting for 10. 

With a little luck, and a much better plan, they will hopefully make our legislature far more competitive over the next 10 years.


Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq


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