Guest Columns


Just because redistricting is messy, it doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing

“District plans are integrated bundles of compromises, deals, and principles … representing an array of values, some relatively neutral, some intensely partisan.”
Sanchez v. State of Colorado, U.S. Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit (1996)

As many southern Coloradans, I am disappointed that the General Assembly did not perform its constitutional duty of adopting a congressional redistricting plan following the tabulation of the 2010 decennial census.

My most profound disappointment is that the citizens of southern Colorado will remain without a unique voice in Congress to represent our interests, especially if a Denver state district court judge makes the line drawing decisions, as it appears that he will. Two cases that have been filed — one by the Republicans and one by the Democrats — will likely be consolidated.

Ten years ago, while serving as senate majority leader, my congressional redistricting plan carved out a southeastern district which passed the Senate — Democrats and Republicans voted for it — but it stalled in the House. The map was designed to create as many competitive districts as possible so that unaffiliated voters would be included in the process, and the best candidates possible would be encouraged to run. And it recognized what those of us who live here know: there is a strong sense of community — a multi-generational Hispanic community, a string of indigenous communities tied to the Arkansas River, and a rural and agricultural economy that has long been a “stepchild” to the rest of the state — which deserves a stronger voice in Congress.

The most recent Republican and Democrat plans do not do justice to southern Colorado. In applying the constitutional criteria of including population equality (718,457 per district) and non-dilution of minority voting strength, as well as other factors such as geographic compactness and communities of interest, the legislature or a court should recognize that bipartisan democracy presupposes that our southern Colorado welfare is identical with that of Denver, the absence of social classes in different regions of the state and a basic uniformity of interest throughout the state. Of course, this is not the case. Coloradans are not homogeneous.

In 1982 after the Republican legislature did not reach an accord with our Democratic governor, a Colorado federal court rejected plans submitted by the litigants and fashioned our congressional district lines. Ten years later, our Democratic governor compromised with the Republican dominated legislature on a plan (as the federal court refused to draw lines until it lacked assurance that plans would be enacted in time for the elections). And in 2002 a Denver state district court judge adopted a Republican plan with adjustments offered by Democrat litigants.

As the federal district court did in 1991, the Denver state district judge who has the 2011 cases should not undertake to hear them until the legislature has every opportunity to reapportion in a timely fashion. Then our governor should call a special legislative session insisting that compromise be reached within each party and between each party. Has the legislature reached an impasse? Is it not capable of resolving a messy thicket? Just because it’s messy doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.

What a difference line drawing makes

As a former senate majority leader I was privileged to serve in 2001 on the 11-member Colorado Reapportionment Commission created under our Colorado Constitution to draw state senate and state representative boundaries.

In many ways the duties of the Commission contrasts with, and at the same time mirrors, the line drawing of congressional districts which is primarily the task of the legislature. The Commission must follow the procedures and apply the criteria of federal and Colorado law in adopting its Final Plan for Colorado General Assembly house and senate districts.

Two Republicans and two Democrats, who serve in each house of the General Assembly, or their designee, are members of the Commission. The governor appoints three members. (In 2001 then-governor Bill Owens appointed three Republicans; this year Governor Hickenlooper appointed two Democrats and one Republican.) The chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court completes the process by making four appointments. (This year he appointed two Republicans, one Democrat and one unaffiliated voter. In 2001 the chief justice appointed six Democrats.)

The total breakdown this year is five Republicans, five Democrats and one unaffiliated voter — the same breakdown as in 1991. The breakdown in 2001 was five Republicans and six Democrats.

While I am disappointed that the governor did not appoint three Democrats this year, I remain hopeful that the districts that are drawn will be sufficiently similar to the existing ones so that Democrats can compete for the majority in each House. Remember that for about 40 years before the Commission’s 2002 final plan, Democrats only won the majority in the house three times, in the Senate twice: 1960, 1964 and 1974 in the House; 1960 and 2000 in the Senate — something pundits thought could not be done.

In the last five election cycles (2002-2010) the major parties split wins and control, in large part because of the line drawing of the 2001 Commission. Republicans won the senate in 2002; Democrats in 2004-10. Republicans won the House in 2002 and 2010; Democrats in 2004-08.

Line drawing makes a difference.

Bill Thiebaut is a former Colorado Senate Majority Leader and now serves as Pueblo District Attorney.