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Bipartisan group files initiatives to change how Colorado legislative, congressional districts are drawn

September 6, 2017 Updated: September 6, 2017 at 6:34 pm
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Map courtesy State of Colorado.

A bipartisan group filed paperwork on ballot initiatives Wednesday to redraw the rules on how legislative and congressional districts are drawn in Colorado, a process that now ensures lots of safe districts for parties to control and feeds partisan gridlock in the state Capitol.

The paperwork to get on the November 2018 ballot was submitted by the League of Women Voters of Colorado and former state Rep. Kathleen Curry of Gunnison, who left the Democratic Party in 2009 to become unaffiliated. They are part of a bipartisan coalition called Fair Districts Colorado.

The group hopes to involve more unaffiliated voters and represent all political interests, potentially giving non-major party candidates a shot, not just the majority party in the legislature when the boundaries are drawn.

"The more people who participate in the process the better off we are as a state," Toni Larson, a Colorado League of Women Voters officer, told reporters on a press call Wednesday morning.

Districts are redrawn every 10 years allegedly based on the census by legislators who are beholden to their parties and have a self-interest in drawing safe districts to put or keep their party in the majority. As a result only three of the 65 seats in the House have flipped from one party to the other over the last 10 years, Fair Districts Colorado said. The group deemed 15 state Senate seats are safely drawn for Republicans, 13 for Democrats and seven could be deemed competitive.

Of Colorado's seven congressional districts, only the 6th, represented by Republican Mike Coffman, could be considered competitive, according to the coalition.

Congressional and state legislative district boundaries supposed to be adjusted for population and demographic shifts, not to give the party in control of the statehouse a political edge.

The effort is supported by former Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty of Highlands Ranch and former Democratic House Speaker Mark Ferrandino of Denver.

"Of the things we've talked about, I think the most appealing to the people of Colorado will be the focus on competitiveness, increasing the number of competitive districts," McNulty said. ". I know you can't draw every district in Colorado - whether it's the state House, the state Senate or our legislative districts - to be competitive, but we can increase the number of competitive districts in all three categories.

"What that means in the legislature is simple: The extremes on either the far right and far left don't have as much sway over the caucus decisions, because caucus leadership has to make sure they're paying attention to these seats that necessarily drive the debate in the middle."

The group is confident its proposal will protect minority voters and "communities of interest," a concern that has worked against past proposals to address political influence in redistricting.

"We anticipate partisans on both side to oppose this," McNulty said. "Those who have a vested interest in the current process where partisans get to control the state legislative districts will be those who most fiercely oppose this. When you talk about putting transparency measures in place, when you talk about competitiveness, when you talk about opening the process, the public benefits, but those who currently have power lose it."

A liberal potential opposition group was meeting Wednesday morning to discuss a statement or strategy. (This story will be updated when where hear back.)

Opponents of the current system allege the maps are drawn by political operatives behind closed doors, routinely on the edge of gerrymandering to serve political not public purposes. As a result, the courts are often involved.

"Under our current system, politicians pick their voters, instead of voters picking their politicians," Curry said. "With our initiatives, more races will be decided by competitive November elections instead of in safe-seat primaries, making candidates actually compete for more voters."

How does that play out in governing? In the legislative session, the bipartisan transportation proposal titled House Bill 1242, died because Democrats would not take money out of the existing state budget used for services and Republicans wouldn't support a proposed ballot initiative that would have allowed a vote on a tax hike.

Eric Sondermann, a Denver-based independent political analyst, noted afterwards that Democrats never pay a price in a party primary for defending social services and Republicans never pay a primary price for opposing tax increases. Lawmakers take a big risk for going against their party, possibly picking up a primary opponent while losing party support.

The coalition, made up of political veterans, alleged the state has a "checkered history of redistricting abuses." Both sides have accused the other of gerrymandering.

The group said its initiatives would:

·Establish independent commissions, balanced between Republicans and Democrats, that must include representation from Unaffiliated and non-major party members for the very first time.

·Require an eight-vote supermajority to pass maps, including one non-major party member vote so neither party can hijack the map-drawing process.

·Require full transparency, stipulating that commissions operate in public and follow open

meetings and open records laws.

·Remove the map-drawing from political operatives, by tasking non-partisan, professional staff with that responsibility.

·Require maps to adhere to good government criteria, such as equal population, compliance with the Voting Rights Act, preservation of county and city integrity,

compactness, communities of interest and competitiveness.

The coalition will need to collect signatures from 98,492 registered voters in the next six months to get each question on the ballot, including at least 2,300 from each of the 35 Senate districts.

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