Redistricting Isn't Just About Congress. New Rough Draft Colorado General Assembly Maps Are Out
Rough drafts of Colorado’s new General Assembly district maps were revealed during the Independent Legislative Redistricting Commission’s meeting on Tuesday. A preliminary congressional map was also released last week.
Like their congressional counterpart, these state Senate and House of Representative maps are far from final. They are a starting point for the commission to hit the road and receive feedback from residents in 32 public comment meetings held across the state starting July 9. Also, this preliminary map was made with estimated data rather than the full 2020 Census count data, the release of which has been delayed until August.
The final versions will be chosen by commissioners after they work with staff to create updated maps based on official 2020 Census count data and feedback received during the public comment tour. Read more about the new redistricting process here.
“We cannot stand by the accuracy of this data, but we believe that this is a reasonable first effort,” said Jessica Shipley, director of commission non-partisan staff, during the Tuesday morning meeting. “Our first mandate when creating these plans was to create equal population districts with no more than a 5% deviation between the smallest and largest districts.”
Staff were particularly uncertain about the accuracy of population data in the proposed state House of Representatives map, because its districts are the smallest of all three maps and could be more vulnerable to local-level data errors.
The maps aren’t based purely on numbers — they have to account for other aspects like competitiveness, communities with shared cultural, economic or geographic interests and federal statutes.
One aspect the staff purposely did not consider when making the maps is where current legislators live. Ultimately, an even spread of population size is the top priority.
Implementing those other aspects “was difficult due to the population distribution in Colorado,” said Shipley. “As such, individuals and groups who provided input about communities of interest may feel as if they were not heard. Please know that we read and digested all of your comments and did our best to incorporate them into the plan. But it just wasn't possible in many cases.”
For example, the state constitution also directs the redistricting process to avoid splitting cities and counties as much as possible. But the large population size of some cities, like Greeley, Fort Collins and Denver, forced staff to split them between multiple districts.
The final map may better account for the non-population aspects of redistricting, she said, because the commissions and staff will have gathered more public comment and will have access to full census count data.
But some non-population goals were met by this map. For example, staff said they combined the more rural, mountainous parts of Boulder and Larimer counties with Jackson in proposed HD58 and combined the rural parts of Weld County with the northeastern plains counties in proposed HD65 to keep those geographically similar areas together.
Staff originally used the 2018 state attorney general race as a benchmark for how different areas tend to vote. But criticism for limiting their analysis to that election after the congressional map release pushed staff to add the 2020 U.S. Senate race to the General Assembly maps’ analysis.
"We're not certain that these are the best projections for whether a district meets the definition of competitiveness in the constitution," said staff managing attorney Jerimiah Barry. He made a similar point during the release of congressional maps last week. "This is indeed one of the more difficult decisions the commission will have to make."
Based on those two elections, a majority of proposed districts would likely lean Democratic by 10% or more, according to staff analysis. That lead is particularly strong in the preliminary Colorado House of Representatives map.
The state Senate district with the potential to be one of the most competitive is proposed SD5, which combines the rural part of Larimer and six northwestern counties. It shares most of its landmass with the current SD8. The Republican lead in the district would only have been about 4% in both races staff analyzed. That’s actually a larger margin than what Republican Robert Rankin won the 2020 state Senate race by in the existing SD8.
One of the least competitive districts is the proposed SD1, which would contain parts of Weld, Adams and Arapahoe counties along with six northeastern plains counties. Commission staff estimate that district would have had a nearly 50% Republican lead in both races.
Despite the constitution pushing for these maps to "maximize competitive districts," only a handful of the districts on all three maps showed one party likely leading less than 10% of the vote.
“Competitiveness is at the bottom of the priority list and we are required to meet all of the other constitutional requirements first before we try creating competitive districts,” staff managing attorney Barry said during the congressional map release last week. “And given the population distribution in Colorado, it is very difficult to draw more competitive districts.”
The smallest proposed district is HD38 in southwest Weld and northeast Boulder counties. That's mostly because it's one of the fastest-growing areas in the state, Barry said.
State legislative districts are given more leeway on population evenness than congressional districts. While there is only a two-person difference between the smallest and largest proposed congressional districts, that difference is 78 people in proposed state House districts and 222 people in state Senate districts. Those state legislative district differences are below the 5% threshold set by the state constitution.
Maintaining even populations at such small levels of geography sometimes required creating districts with small tentacles jutting out to capture a small number of people in neighboring communities, Barry said.
While many see such lines as evidence of inappropriate gerrymandering, experts say that isn’t an accurate measure of a district’s fairness and could actually be a sign of the opposite. Some of the awkward-looking districts in these maps also exist due to certain court cases or to keep minority and other interest groups together.