Congressional district maps used to be an afterthought; they were a locked-away secret, decided upon by a powerful few and thoroughly uninteresting to the rest.
But now gerrymandering, or the drawing of political voting maps to benefit a political party, is getting major national attention because of its perceived impact on legislatures that are skewed heavily toward one party.
The problem’s been quietly lurking for years. With widely varying and loose rules on how to divvy up congressional districts in an increasingly partisan climate, congressional district maps have morphed into political weapons. A lawsuit involving alleged gerrymandering on partisan grounds in Wisconsin is set to go to the nation’s highest court; the results of the trial could have major impacts on the future of voting, including in Colorado.
Colorado's map-making process is relatively balanced, particularly if you compare it to other states (take a look at this map of North Carolina). The maps are determined by a commission of eleven members, of which no more than five can come from one party. No more than four members can come from the state legislature (only two state legislators, Senator Morgan Carroll and Representative Matt Jones, are on the current committee). The governor picks three committee members, and the chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court appoints four. The other four members are determined by the majority and minority leaders of the state House and Senate; they each get a single appointment.
The current commission has five Democrats, five Republicans and one unaffiliated member, commission chairman Mario Carrera, who sided with Democrats in a controversial case a few years ago about possible gerrymandering.
In 2011, state legislative maps were redrawn and were widely perceived to benefit Democrats. The maps, in short, tended to “pack” GOP voters together, concentrating their votes rather than spreading them out to cover more races and districts. The initial plan was shot down by the Colorado Supreme Court, but another proposal a few weeks later was approved, much to the displeasure of local Republicans.
“[Democrats] targeted my seat in the redistricting process,” Congressman Mike Coffman told the Hugh Hewitt Show in 2014. Coffman had good reason to be peeved.
The main shift, from a congressional standpoint, led Coffman’s 6th Congressional District to lose a big chunk of heavily Republican Douglas County and to include more of Latino Aurora farther north. But Coffman’s perception as a more moderate Republican in his swingy district has helped him keep his hold on his congressional seat; he won re-election last fall by a nearly nine-point margin despite the district favoring Hillary Clinton by about eight points.
Electoral maps are arbitrarily drawn and approved by state representatives in 37 states, including Colorado. The party in charge usually wants to ensure its hold on or to expand its power, sometimes to gain a so-called supermajority, which allows the party in charge to veto decisions and boldly push its political agenda.
Therefore, state legislatures often draw themselves more favorable maps, clumping together opposition voters into certain districts while spreading out their own voters to cover as many districts as possible in order to win more seats.
An Associated Press study in June found that Republicans were four times more likely to benefit from gerrymandering, particularly in key swing states like North Carolina, Michigan, Virginia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida.
Despite the swing state voting for Donald Trump by just 0.7 percent in November and siding with Barack Obama in the previous two presidential cycles, Republicans hold massive majorities in both the state’s Senate and House. Local Democrats say maps are skewed in Republicans’ favor by clustering typical Democratic voters together; Republicans argue that the maps are fair and reflect previous election results. The U.S. Supreme Court will decide who is correct.
It’s the first time in a decade that the nation's highest court has had a chance to weigh in on partisan gerrymandering (the court struck down gerrymandering on racial grounds in a North Carolina case earlier this year). Proposals for nonpartisan legislative staffs to determine map-drawing could gain momentum, depending on the outcome of the case.
Regardless of the results, political map-making is sure to get a fair bit more complicated in Colorado. Thanks to a population boom that’s brought a net of about 600,000 new folks in just seven years, Colorado stands to gain at least one more electoral vote following the 2020 Census, which means the state stands to pick up at least one additional congressional district as well.
And that means that both congressional and state legislature voting maps are going to have to be redrawn. The party in power — Democrats, as things currently stand — hold the early advantage: 37-28 in the House. But Republicans hold a one-seat advantage (18-17) in the Senate. All 100 legislature seats will be up for re-election before maps are redrawn after the 2020 census.
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