Is it time to consider an alternative to legislative redistricting?
In the most recent effort to develop a redistricting plan, Colorado Democrats have taken the rhetorical high ground, but the Republicans claim to have real geography on their side.
Democrats stand on the principle of fair and competitive districts that favor neither party, while the GOP wants to preserve the status quo, keeping intact geographic communities of interest that would be split by Democratic maps.
Since redistricting is all about re-election, each side expects to gain strength from its approach.
As the two sides dig in, Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, plans to introduce one or two Democratic maps later this week, while House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, said he is not certain whether Republicans will offer their own bill.
Heath claims the Democrats have based their plan on the principle that “every vote should count, district lines should be fair and competitive and districts should not create ‘congressmen for life.’ “
This approach, Heath claims, emerged because “at every public meeting the committee held, we were asked to draw competitive districts to assure that neither party has an unfair advantage in any district. It is incumbent upon members of the General Assembly to address these problems.”
Rather than use competitive districts as an organizing principle, Republicans keep most current districts, shifting boundaries to accommodate population changes over the past decade.
“If the Democrats continue to push a map that doesn’t follow statutory guidelines, ignores case law, and puts Grand Junction in with Boulder ... it’s going to be difficult” to pass redistricting legislation, said McNulty.
It was not meant to be this way.
Amid great bipartisan fanfare, even before the 2011 Legislature met, Democrats and Republicans launched a 10-member Joint Select Committee on Redistricting.
Its charge was to evaluate proposed redistricting maps, solicit feedback from constituents on the redistricting process and make recommendations to the Legislature on redistricting.
Appointed with an equal number of members from each party by Senate and House party leaders, the committee was given broad discretion either to recommend new districts, or simply to report back on voter preferences based on its listening trips around the state.
All this bipartisan hoopla was aimed at avoiding the kind of fiasco that kept the 2000 redistricting effort in the courts for years.
The 2000 census gave Colorado a seventh congressional seat. It also led to a partisan battle over redistricting plans that paralyzed the Legislature and forced the issue into the state Supreme Court.
After the court approved a plan in 2002, Republicans seized the opportunity late in the 2003 session to ram through their own map in the so-called “midnight gerrymander.”
This effort was also rejected by the state Supreme Court, though it remained in federal court until dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007.
The current stalemate over redistricting begins to seem very consistent with other failed attempts over the past three decades. Both the 1980 and 1990 legislative redistricting plans ended up in court.
As Denver Post columnist Diane Carman quipped after the 2001 debacle, “Taking the partisanship out of politics is like trying to take the sex out of porn.”
Current redistricting methods that empower those with most to gain from the outcome to choose the boundaries of the districts they will run in is the ultimate political conflict of interest.
Though no redistricting formula that is totally immune to the party influence which drives most redistricting efforts has yet evolved, more than a dozen states have taken the process out of the hands of elected officials. Some are scrambling now to make reforms before the 2012 elections.
As one example, Iowa uses civil service-like technicians to make the first draft of district lines. Neither the home addresses of sitting legislators nor the political affiliations of voters can be used in the process.
The completed draft is then sent to the Legislature, which may approve or disapprove of it. For the first two drafts, legislators cannot change the committee recommendation.
If the current redistricting effort fails to achieve a a bipartisan electoral map, it may be time for Colorado voters to demand a new and less-partisan approach to redistricting.