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The Adams County Commission during a lengthy public hearing about strengthened oil and gas regulations on Monday, Sept. 3, 2019. (Amanda K. Clark, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Congressional and state legislative redistricting may have grabbed the headlines this year, but Colorado’s powerful county commissions will also need to overhaul their districts after a decade of big population growth.  

County commissioners are required to reassess their districts after the once-a-decade U.S. census to make sure they are close to equal in population. 

Nearly half of the state’s 64 counties grew by 5% or more between 2010 and 2020, according to the census results. Broomfield, Weld and Douglas saw the highest percentage population growth across the state, with Broomfield’s population growing by a third. 

Counties were supposed to complete their commission-district review by Sept. 30 after population data was released in March. But the U.S. census data wasn’t released until mid-August, leaving little time for most counties to hold public meetings, draw new maps and deliberate.

As a result, lawmakers this year approved a bill that extended the review deadline to Sept. 30, 2023, with any changes to county commission districts set to take effect in 2024.

Here’s how the process works and the counties where the changes will be most important:

Where commissioner redistricting matters most

The process of changing commissioner districts will be most important in three counties: El Paso, Arapahoe and Weld.  

That’s because in those counties, some or all of the commissioners are elected by voters in their district, as opposed to most counties where commissioners are required to live in their district but are elected by voters countywide. 

In those three counties, district boundaries have a bigger effect on the outcome of elections since the electorate matters as much as the geography. 

An oil and gas drilling rig towers above a Weld County neighborhood on June 5, 2020. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

But even in places where commissioners are elected by voters countywide, there are still important redistricting decisions that need to be made, including ensuring districts are roughly equal in population, determining what communities belong together in a district, and figuring out how to divide up major roadways, landmarks and business districts. 

Counties that gained or lost the most population will likely see the biggest changes to their commission districts. 

“We have had massive changes as one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation,” Weld County Clerk Carly Koppes said. 

The county, which grew by 30% over the past decade, saw its biggest population growth in central and southern Weld County, meaning the biggest boundary shifts will likely occur in commissioner Districts 2 and 3, Koppes said. 

A few counties have to do more than the rest 

A bill that was signed into law this year requires El Paso, Arapahoe and Weld counties to add some guardrails to their redistricting process. 

St. Mary’s Cathedral is seen in downtown Colorado Springs on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. Colorado Springs, located in El Paso County, has a population of over 460,000. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

House Bill 1047 is aimed at adding the same transparency and anti-gerrymandering protections to the county commission redistricting process that Amendments Y and Z, which voters approved in 2018, put in place for congressional and state legislative redistricting.

Some provisions of House Bill 1047 would:

  • Allow counties to create independent panels to conduct redistricting
  • Require that public hearings be held
  • Require paid lobbyists influencing the process to file disclosures
  • Prohibit gerrymandering

In El Paso County, a Republican stronghold where the population has trended more to the left in recent years, Democrats have complained that the existing redistricting process gives the board’s five GOP commissioners too much control. Democrats argued the legislation would help produce fairer maps. 

El Paso surpassed Denver in this decade’s census as the state’s largest county by population. 

The county’s all-Republican board and county clerk were opposed to the redistricting bill, arguing it’s unnecessary and that it targeted a handful of counties. County Clerk Chuck Broerman said the county’s last round of redistricting in 2017 included plenty of public hearings and opportunities to comment or submit maps. 

With the redistricting review deadline pushed to the fall of 2023, El Paso County commissioners have yet to set a timeline or process for how their map-drawing process will unfold. 

Meanwhile, Arapahoe County commissioners earlier this year discussed using a provision of House Bill 1047 to create a separate citizen advisory board to oversee their redistricting process. The county has similar committees to manage initiatives like grants for open space and park improvements. 

Although Weld County falls under the bill’s requirements, the county’s attorney has said the commission doesn’t need to comply because it is a home rule county. 

MORE: Colorado’s county commissions are powerful. A new effort aims to ensure their districts are drawn fairly.

Prisoner reallocation could have unintended consequences 

Counties with state or federal prisons have another factor to consider: a new state law that changes how people living in prisons are counted as part of redistricting. 

A bill passed by state lawmakers in 2020 requires that for redistricting purposes, incarcerated people be counted based on their last home address, not the location of the prison where they are held. 

The legislation was aimed at preventing prison populations from inflating the representative power of rural areas where correctional facilities often are located. 

The recounting work will likely be done by nonpartisan legislative staff, who did the same analysis this year for the statewide redistricting commissions, said Eric Bergman, policy director for Colorado Counties Inc, an association of county governments. 

Legislative staff, however, will only count state prisoners, meaning counties could be left to deal with the question of how to count people being held in federal prisons. 

“Several hundred people, that’s like a blip to us,” Bergman said, referring to his home county of Adams where the population is more than a half-million people. But a few hundred prisoners in a sparsely populated rural county could skew district lines. 

FILE – In this Oct. 15, 2015 file photo, Colorado State Penitentiary II, background, sits vacant inside a larger correctional complex, outside Canon City, in southern Colorado. Colorado authorities say have taken away all 15,000 computer tablets available to prison inmates in the state over security concerns. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)

The prisoner population requirement is mostly a bureaucratic headache, Fremont County Commissioner Dwayne McFall said, especially when it comes to getting information from federal prison authorities. Fremont County has several state and federal prisons.

McFall said his county’s prison population has posed other data issues, like skewing the region’s coronavirus vaccination rates. 

Thankfully, there’s that deadline extension. 

“I’m sure we’ll tackle that next year,” McFall said. 

Some counties are already done with redistricting

A number of counties have already completed redistricting, including some who quickly wrapped up the process this year after the census data was released in August. 

Douglas County’s population increased by 25% over the past decade, with much of that growth in communities like Parker and Castle Rock. District 3 Commissioner Lora Thomas represents Highlands Ranch, a suburban community with little room for further development. That meant her district’s population stayed about the same while the county’s two other districts saw a lot of growth. 

Before redistricting, District 3 had 17,000 fewer people than the other two districts, according to a Douglas County report using population estimates released before the official 2020 census data was available. 

Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas opens a special meeting on Aug. 19 where commissioners voted on whether to opt out of a Tri-County Health Department mask requirement for children ages 2 through 11.

With a number of new developments in the pipeline, the county expects Parker and Castle Rock will only continue to grow, so Thomas said she pushed for Douglas County’s new commission-district map to add another growing community, Sterling Ranch, to District 3. 

Douglas County commissioners approved the new map at a public hearing at the end of September. No members of the public commented on the proposed map at the hearing. 

Counties that changed their districts in previous years, before the latest census, will still need to check the latest census data to make sure they meet population requirements. 

The city and county of Broomfield, which is governed by a 10-member council, redrew its council wards and approved a map last year so the changes could take effect ahead of the 2021 election. 

The city – which also became its own county 20 years ago – has grown to have a population of more than 74,000 in 2020 up from about 55,000 in 2010. The population estimates the city used in redrawing wards last year are expected to be close to final census numbers, so any adjustments aren’t likely to be big, City and County Clerk Erika Delaney Lew said. 

Broomfield is only expecting more growth, said Mayor Guyleen Castriotta, especially with a number of new housing developments in the pipeline and goals to build more affordable housing.

Denver’s City Council must approve new maps by the end of March 2022

Meanwhile, Denver’s process for redrawing its 11 city council districts will ramp up in early 2022 after a working group spent much of this year gathering input. 

Denver, like Broomfield, is also a combined city and county. It has the state’s second largest population. 

The city has already received more than 150 redistricting map submissions. And residents can still get involved and submit maps through the end of January, said Emily Lapel, legislative policy analyst for the Denver City Council. 

Here’s what you can expect next year: 

  • January: People can submit their own map proposals through the end of the month. Starting Jan. 1, the city will have a free mapping tool available online, with an online training scheduled for Jan. 6
  • February: The city will hold six public meetings on proposed maps at sites throughout Denver, with one of those meetings held virtually
  • March: A council committee must vote on a final map by March 7 and the full city council must vote to approve a final map by the end of March

The council has yet to decide its process for narrowing down prospective maps. Public hearing dates and locations, as well as an updated timeline, will be available on the city’s redistricting website at the beginning of January. 

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