If there’s anything we’ve learned from the great Colorado redistricting experiment, it’s this: Drawing lines is hard in any case, and drawing them fairly is that much harder.
That’s not a surprise. The problem with fairness as a proposition is that it’s difficult to even define, much less achieve.
But that was the goal — a worthy goal, I believe — when Colorado voters chose the good-government route by taking the redistricting process away from legislators/lobbyists and giving it to an independent commission.
So, how’s the experiment going?
That’s a fair question. But do we have a fair answer?
When it comes to the congressional redistricting map that the commission has submitted to the Supreme Court for approval — not a sure thing, by the way — there are at least a few things to consider.
One, most Republicans love the map. It’s hard to imagine, given their present reduced status in Colorado, they could have gotten a better one. It’s no wonder they were suddenly so willing to change the redistricting rules.
Two, many Democrats don’t love the map.
Three, if a stab at fairness is a gift to Republicans that they don’t really deserve — as longtime Colorado Republican pol Greg Brophy put it — that isn’t to say they will necessarily take advantage of it. In fact, recent history suggests they may not.
Want early access to
Subscribe to get an
exclusive first look at
his columns twice a week.
Four, several Latino groups are challenging the map, claiming that it dilutes their voting power, which, if so, would bump up against not only the Voting Rights Act but also the instructions given by Colorado voters to the commissioners.
Five, if the court does reject the map, it could reject the entire map, part of the map or whatever else they might come up with. The commission would have done well, I’m told, to have consulted an outside expert on matters of voting rights.
Six, if you think fairness is hard to define, try “communities of interest,” which seems to mean something different to every, uh, community.
Seven, watching people, normal citizens on the commission, who are not always exactly expert in drawing maps, can be a painful experience. Of course, watching experts do it isn’t so exciting either. Let’s just try to imagine what would have happened without the nonpartisan commission staff, which actually draws the maps.
Eight, if after all the bother of redistricting, all seven U.S. House incumbents remain in safe districts (Ed Perlmutter, in the 7th CD, is not as safe as the others, which we’ll get to, but will still be favored), then that has to be considered a failure, even if competitiveness was down the list of variables the commissioners were to consider.
Nine, if the census hadn’t taken so long to complete, due mostly to the pandemic, the process might have gone a lot smoother.
I could go on, but let’s get to the map. As you must know, Colorado was given an additional district this year — an eighth district — after another strong decade of growth. The eighth district, pulled from the north Denver metro area, was the easy one to make competitive, and that’s what the commissioners have done. There are three safe Republican districts, three safe Democratic districts, one likely Democratic district and one tossup with a slight Democratic lean.
It’s 4-3-1, which seems fair unless you consider that Colorado has become an increasingly blue state — so blue in the Trump era that in the last election, Democrats won every statewide race; so blue, even before Trump, that only one Republicans has won a top-of-the-ticket race in the state (that was Cory Gardner over Mark Udall in 2014) since 2006.
It seems fair unless you consider that most states don’t have a commission, and in some that do, the commission can (and often will) be steamrolled by the legislature. And it seems fair unless you consider that gerrymandering is still very much alive, and Republicans control a majority of state legislatures, including, yes, Texas, where they’ve turned it into an art form. But, to be fair, watch the artwork Democrats in New York and Illinois produce.
And we’re not even considering the new voting laws in many Republican states meant to suppress the vote — and the failure, to this point, of Democrats to pass a federal law to counter the Republican moves in a year when Democratic control of the House and Senate are very much at stake. Just watch how much money is spent on the 8th District race.
If the congressional map had still been in the hands of the Colorado legislature, controlled by Democrats, there would undoubtedly be a clear 5-3 map, with — just a guess here — a possibility for a 6-2.
So, did those Democrats who voted for the new — and, yes, fairer — redistricting rules also agree to unilaterally disarm?
In Tuesday’s Unaffiliated column in The Sun, there’s a fascinating look at how the commission — which, by law, is composed of four Republicans, four Democrats and four unaffiliated voters — voted on the various maps it considered. The Republican members voted very much as a bloc while Democrats (in disarray?) did not, making it very hard for them to ever get the necessary eight votes for approval. That doesn’t mean it was unfair. It means that’s exactly how I would have guessed the process would work.
But what would seem fair is that if the commissioners were to make one Democratic district semi-competitive — Perlmutter’s district has, according to the commission’s scoring, a not-quite-seven-point Democratic lean; the closest Republican district is nine percentage points — they should also have made one of the Republican safe districts similarly semi-competitive. That’s hard to do if you’re going to ensure two rural districts in the state and also keep El Paso County mostly whole.
But here’s the deal. This map, if approved, represents a great opportunity for Colorado Republicans in a state Joe Biden won by more than 13 points. The 2022 election is a midterm, when the party out of power generally does quite well. There’s a new district that starts out as a tossup. There’s another Democratic district that could be competitive. And Republicans just barely avoided a major self-inflicted wound by deciding not to opt out of primaries, although they may yet challenge the open-primary system in court.
Now all Republicans have to do is nominate candidates who have a chance to actually win in competitive districts, which means candidates who don’t necessarily embrace Donald Trump, don’t necessarily embrace the Big Lie and certainly don’t believe Lauren Boebert is the model for moving the state party forward. And what do you think are the chances of that?
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the newsroom. Read our ethics policy for more on The Sun’s opinion policy and submit columns, suggested writers and more to firstname.lastname@example.org.