A solution in search of a problem?

Initially hyped as a “bipartisan” effort to change Colorado’s political map-making process, Initiative 55 turns out to be backed by an impressive bunch of Republicans, with no official Democratic party endorsement. Its effect is to enhance GOP power by dominating the drawing of political boundaries.

Despite a national trend toward independent commissions to draw state political boundaries, Colorado Democratic state Sen. Jessie Ulibarri and Reps. Joe Salazar and Angela Williams oppose efforts to reform the process in Colorado.

Initiative 55 was submitted last month by former Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, and former Secretary of State Bernie Buescher, D-Grand Junction.

While Buescher’s endorsement lends to the air of bipartisan support, the measure is largely backed by Republicans, such as former Gov. Bill Owens, former secretaries of state Donetta Davidson and Gigi Dennis and McNulty.

As Joey Bunch reported in The Denver Post, “Democrats who keep close watch on minority voting rights worry the Republicans involved in the amendment are trying to pull a fast one, while supporters of the constitutional amendment say it’s the fastest way to make districts more competitive. The commission would be made up of four Democrats, four Republicans and four unaffiliated voters, with a super majority of eight votes needed to approve a map.”

Under current law, every 10 years the Legislature redraws boundaries to reflect the most recent census figures. More often than not, these discussions either cut deals to gerrymander districts to protect incumbents, or deteriorate into partisan squabbles that must finally be decided by the courts.

Initiative 55 proposes to turn the state district map-making over to “non-partisan experts” to reduce gerrymandering. 

But that is not nearly all it does. “We don’t disagree that our current map-making process needs to be adjusted,” the Colorado Pols story said, “but as we read through the draft language for ‘Initiative 55,’ we found ourselves pumping the policy brakes on numerous occasions.”

Among the issues raised by Colorado Pols are the effect Initiative 55 would have on the voting power of minority groups, the fact that it makes it more difficult to craft competitive boundaries, and that counties could be split even if they divide minority communities or other communities of interest.

Critics contend the current system is overly partisan and assures an easy path to victory for certain parties and in certain districts. Among Colorado’s seven congressional districts, only Congressional District 6 is considered competitive between the two parties, Bunch reported.

Civil right groups and community organizations are responding with outrage at what they see as efforts to minimize minority voting in Colorado by creation of the new redistricting commission.

Common Cause released a statement of support for a truly independent redistricting commission, but added, “this proposal doesn’t meet that standard.”

“This is the first time in the country that we’ve seen language proposed that would actually put a ceiling on minority voting representation. This proposal falls short of protecting communities of color, public input, competitiveness and actually giving independent power to the commissioners,” said Elena Nunez of Common Cause Colorado.

Rep. Angela Williams, chair of the Colorado Black Caucus, said, “These so-called bipartisan efforts to draw legislative and congressional boundaries are laughable. Our voices were not at the table from the beginning.”

Rep. Joe Salazar, co-chair of the Colorado Latino Democratic legislative caucus said, “Colorado has a very competitive political environment both in the legislature and our congressional delegation. This proposal does absolutely nothing to move us forward — and would actually move communities of color backward.”

Initiative 55 has far to go to get on the ballot. Supporters will need to collect 98,492 registered voter signatures to qualify the initiative for the ballot, then win a majority of votes in the general election.

With the minority voters essential to the Democratic party firmly opposed to Initiative 55, and Republicans not anxious to support a Democratic victory in the Legislature, it seems unlikely either party will push hard to change the status quo.

“The fact is,” Bunch concluded, referencing the narrow party divisions in the Legislature, “our current process for drawing legislative maps gets testy at times, but the results would seem to speak for themselves. If you accept that, this whole business is a solution in search of a problem.”

Bill Grant lives in Grand Junction. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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