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Who Will You Be Voting Alongside For The Next 10 Years? Independent Commissions Have Begun Reworking Colorado Districts

Voters stand at tables at the Larimer County Courthouse to speak with election workers. Plastic sheeting separates each person from one another.
Luke Runyon / KUNC
Voters prepare to cast their ballots at the Larimer County Courthouse on Nov. 3, 2020.

Colorado’s independent redistricting commissions must use census count data every 10 years to make fairer, more competitive maps for Colorado’s federal and state representative elections. These maps will likely be used until the next census count in 2030.

Commissioners also have the responsibility of creating a new, eighth district this time. Colorado is expected to get another representative in the U.S. House due to its population growth.This ultimately increases the amount of influence the state can have in national politics.

This commission exists thanks to voters. In 2018, 71% of them approved Amendments Y and Z, which aimed to take partisan politics out of the process by moving it away from the state legislature. The goal is to keep districts from favoring one party over another or reducing the voices of certain groups (racial, political, county, etc.) by putting them into a district where their votes might have less of an impact on electoral outcomes. The amendments ideally want the commission's districts to maximize competition by combining politically different groups as evenly as possible.

In the past, the state legislature was responsible for this process. In 2010, those officials failed to agree on a map in time and a court stepped in to decide how the state’s districts should be organized.

What these commissions do

Congressional redistricting commissioners convened for the first timelast week to hear about each other’s political backgrounds, learn more about the process ahead of them and the unique challenges they may face in this once-a-decade task.

Commissioners are responsible for redrawing the state’s districts after the decennial census results are released. Each district’s population size must be kept relatively even and commissioners have to provide reasoning for any differences, regardless of how small.

But the commissions’ final maps won't be based purely on numbers. Their job is to create districts that avoid splitting counties or cities between multiple districts, are as politically competitive as possible, racially fair and geographically contiguous and compact. And they have to keep in line with state and federal voting rights laws.

Managing all of that requires a lot of complex processes and analysis of data, but public input is also a big part of it. All discussion about the maps must happen in publicly accessible meetings. Commissioners also have to make rough draft maps — which rely mostly on population numbers — and gather input from residents on them, holding at least three public hearings in each congressional district.

Colorado's current congressional district map.
Colorado Independent Redistricting Commission
Colorado Independent Redistricting Commission
Colorado's current congressional district map.

The commission must deliver plans for the redrawn districts to the state Supreme Court by Sept. 1. They spend the months leading up to that deadline creating maps, gathering input and adjusting the maps until they come up with one that at least eight of the 12 commissioners can agree on. The process relies on local census data with a federally mandated release date typically in March.

That timeline was created with the assumption that data would be delivered in a timely manner. But that doesn’t seem likely this year, with the Census Bureau saying it could end up releasing results as late as Sept. 30. That’s after the commission’s constitutionally enshrined deadline. But even if the results come out in mid-summer, the commission’s map creation time could end up being extremely compressed.

“The biggest loss would be the input that we would be getting from the public,” said Jeremiah Barry, the commission’s managing attorney, in an interview with KUNC. “Trying to (hold all 21 public hearings) in a compact time frame would be extremely difficult.”

Barry is part of the commission’s “nonpartisan staff.” They exist to support the commission throughout the process with legal advice and districting analysis. If the commission can’t agree on a district map by the deadline, the staff is supposed to submit its own map in their place.

Who these commissioners are

The congressional and state legislative maps will each be made by two distinct groups of 12 Colorado voters, chosen from a pool of several hundred qualified applicants by legislative leaders, appellate court judges and a random drawing. They’re paid for their time, $200 for every regularly scheduled meeting they attend.

The commissioners for both maps are evenly split between Republicans, Democrats and independents. The constitutional amendment that created the commission says the chosen individuals “should reflect Colorado’s racial, ethnic, gender, and geographic diversity.”

The commissioners are almost evenly split between men and women with two more of the latter, according to the commission staff. Half of them are white, three identify as African American or Black, another three as Latino or Hispanic and the rest identified as some other race or chose not to identify at all.

Across both commissions, people from the 3rd, 4th and 5th Congressional Districts have the most representation, with four commissioners each. The rest of the state’s existing congressional districts have three commissioners each.

Most of the districts have commissioners primarily split between unaffiliated voters and voters registered with one or both of the major parties. District Six is the only one with commissioners that all hold the same political identification, with three registered Republicans.

Census troubles

Several solutions to the census delay are being considered by the commission and staff, including asking the state Supreme Court to push back the deadlines or using 2019 Census estimates for the initial maps. But those ideas could create complications as well, managing attorney Jeremiah Barry told congressional commissioners during their first meeting last Monday, ranging from lawsuits to pushing back 2022 election dates.

What happens if the data comes out after the commission’s final deadline is unclear. Commissioners can’t use census estimates from 2019 for the final maps; the state constitution requires them to use the 2020 count.

Other states, including Ohioand Alabama, are suing to get the Census Bureau to release results sooner so their redistricting processes can start on time. In a court filing, the Bureau said releasing the data by the March 31 statutory deadline would be “impossible.”

“I am in hopes that the delay will make the data more accurate,” Barry said in an interview with KUNC. He is not the only observer with concerns about the accuracy of last year's embattled count. “It obviously poses other issues with the timing of when the redistricting is done, but getting accurate data is probably more important at this point than You know, trying to get it faster.”

But some, includingthe people who led the campaign to pass amendments Y and Z, say the commission could use the 2019 estimate data for the rough draft maps to keep the process moving along while they wait for the full count data.

“I'm not opposed to using estimated data,” said Commissioner Danny Moore (R-CD6), noting he is worried the pandemic may have led to increased migration in the state. A report from North American moving services puts Colorado in the top 10 states for inbound moves and Denver in the top five cities people moved to nationally. “I think the impact will really go against what we're trying to do is create representative districts for the individuals.”

Several other commissioners agreed with Moore, saying they wanted to discuss the possibility more in their next session and seek outside legal counsel.

“We have also heard that there will be objections to people using estimated data other than the final census data,” Barry told the commissioners. “And I think the likely result of starting to use estimated data would be that the commission would be sued.”

State lawmakers are looking to extend the commission’s deadlines, Barry told KUNC, adding the deadlines are mandated by the state’s constitution — meaning any change will likely require the state Supreme Court’s approval. Something like this has never been done before, as far as Barry knows, but he's hopeful the Supreme Court will move the deadlines.

“It's just a fact that if we don't get the data to do the redistricting by sometime in the fall, we won't be able to meet all of the constitutional requirements,” he said. “Hopefully they will recognize that this is the best way to (do) what the people who voted for those amendments intended to have done, given the current circumstances.”

Barry told commissioners that any delay in getting plans approved would have a ripple effect on the 2022 election, starting with the party caucuses.

“My concern is, though, that the commission do the work right and get the public input that it needs because these districts will be in existence for a decade and will impact elections in Colorado for a decade,” he said. “So the work of the commission is extremely important, even if it may have some impact on the election cycle in 2022.”

KUNC's Scott Franz contributed reporting to this story.

As KUNC’s rural and small communities reporter, I help further the newsroom’s efforts to ensure that all of Northern Colorado’s communities are heard.
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