Small things make big difference in political redistricting

Ben Franklin had a few lines in Poor Richard’s Almanac, quoting an old proverb, that fit a situation here in Colorado: “For want of a Nail the Shoe was lost; for want of a Shoe the Horse was lost; and for want of a Horse the Rider was lost.”

The proverb illustrates how small things can have big consequences, which brings us to the point of how a very small number of voters in Colorado are affecting the state’s political future.

I’m referring to the redistricting process, where the state Legislature, having failed to agree on boundaries for congressional districts, is involved in the new trend of political discourse — competing lawsuits over political decisions.

There’s a lot interesting about this process, not the least of which is what the Colorado judicial branch now feels its role is in the argument. Article V, Section 44 of the Colorado Constitution states: “The general assembly shall divide the state into as many congressional districts as there are representatives in Congress … When a new apportionment shall be made by Congress, the general assembly shall divide the stated congressional districts accordingly.”

This bit of constitutional clarity was acrobatically interpreted in the state Supreme Court’s December 2003 decision, Salazar v. Davidson, where the justices decided that they were somehow part of the state’s General Assembly and could draw districts themselves.

In the past, the courts would decide if the districts were constitutionally adequate but not substitute themselves for the Legislature in drawing permanent boundaries.

Then Chief Justice Mary Mullarkey wrote at the time, “The term ‘General Assembly’ encompasses the entire legislative process, as well as voter initiatives and redistricting by court order.”

The dissenting justices in that case said that “redistricting is an inherently political activity, and rests with the democratically elected branch of government for good reason.”

The lack of a redistricting agreement ended up in court due to 221 voters in House District 29, who swapped their incumbent Democrat for a Republican. This gave one vote control of the state House of Representatives to the Republican Party, which was able to stop the Democrats’ redistricting bill from being rammed through both houses and signed by the Democratic governor.

These few people living in Jefferson County prevented, at least for the time being, we folks in Mesa and Delta counties from having to watch expensive campaign commercials for our new representative, multimillionaire Second Congressional District Rep. Jared Polis of Boulder.

The first redistricting map drawn by the Democrats would have had one congressional district run from below Mesa County in a sort of a reverse L-shape, ending in the plains and southeastern suburbs of Denver.

Our new district would extend from the eastern edge of Boulder County to the northwestern corner of the state. It’s hard to imagine what common community concerns the people of Montrose and Denver suburbs might share, but when Democrats held the majority in both houses of the state Legislature in 2010, they tried to make sure that would not matter nearly as much.

They did this by passing House Bill 1408, which changed the factors state courts were to use to determine if districts had been drawn fairly. Previously they were not to consider things like political party registration or past election performance.

Now the courts could use these factors in their determination and, according to The Denver Post, the bill also “would eliminate requirements that a redistricting plan avoid splitting cities or counties or ‘communities of interest’ that can include ethnic, economic or geographic groups.”

All the Democrats needed was to maintain their majorities in both houses and have the redistricting plan pushed through and signed. Then they would have legislative process to point to when defending their plan in the courts.

However, Democrats did not expect Robert “Landslide” Ramirez and his 221-vote victory, out of 24,000 votes, shifting House control to Republicans. With neither side able to get a plan through both chambers, it falls to the courts to use some of their new criteria to make a decision.

But there is hope, thanks to Rep. Ramirez and his 221 voters, the Democrats cannot point to a completed legislative process for legitimacy. We should think about these small numbers and big consequences when we consider our ballots next year.

Rick Wagner offers more thoughts on politics at his blog, The War on Wrong.


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