Preliminary draft maps unveiled in June by the state’s legislative redistricting commission, if not adjusted, could violate federal civil rights laws, two state lawmakers said this week, by splitting minority communities in some parts of the state.
At issue is the way state House and Senate districts are drawn in areas where Black and Hispanic Coloradans make up enough of the population to have the power to elect candidates of their choice. In those areas, the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 instructs states to empower minority communities — neither dividing them into different districts so they cannot elect candidates of their choice, nor packing them into single districts and preventing possible influence in more districts.
State Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, said after reviewing the maps, she and others see district lines that reverberate with discriminatory practices of the past.
“Basically the map's lines are drawn exactly where we saw redlining in the past. That’s really disappointing,” Herod said. “What we think we see here is unconstitutional.”
House and Senate districts in central and eastern Denver, and into Aurora, as drawn in the preliminary draft maps, could reduce the power of Black and Hispanic communities to elect representatives of their choice, she said. In El Paso County, as well, Herod said, the preliminary draft map district lines split the Black community into multiple districts.
“The preliminary map is extremely bad for Black representation around the state,” she said.
Rep. Herod and Rep. Jennifer Bacon, D-Denver, wrote a guest editorial in The Denver Post this week expressing the same sentiments.
Rep. Herod said she and other advocates from the state’s minority communities have begun to organize around the maps, and that they intend to make their case at hearings in Denver and Aurora, this upcoming Tuesday and Wednesday.
So far, no significant effort to advocate on behalf of minority communities has materialized at the redistricting commissions’ public hearings.
“The process is not one that’s welcoming to folks who aren’t engaged in the political process, or who aren’t attorneys,” Herod said. “But I do believe there’s a huge opportunity to have an influence. And I do believe the people will show up and make their voices heard.”
At the commissions’ first public hearings, held in rural eastern areas of the state early this month, few showed up to testify. At more recent meetings in the Denver metro area, the community rooms have been packed and have gone late into the night with dozens of people testifying.
The predominant message coming from the public at the meetings: Keep communities together. Not everyone agrees on which communities should be kept together, but some themes have emerged.
At the commissions’ public hearing in Lakewood, they heard again from many people asking for Jefferson County to stay whole on the congressional map. A smaller number of people said they supported the preliminary draft congressional map’s configuration, with Jefferson County split, with the largest part of the county grouped with part of Douglas County.
At the commissions’ public hearing in Englewood, several people advocated for drawing state legislative maps that keep together, to the greatest extent possible, Englewood, Littleton and Sheridan, all small municipalities on the southern periphery of the Denver metro area.
In Englewood, the commission also heard from supporters of a plan to reallocate prisoners in the redistricting, from where they’re incarcerated to where their residence was prior to their incarceration.
The topic isn’t settled yet, with commission attorneys saying that even though the state legislature passed a law in 2019 that requires such reallocation, the law is likely unenforceable, because the Colorado Supreme Court has ruled that the legislature has a limited ability to pass laws instructing the redistricting commissions to take certain actions. The redistricting commissions, the court said, have autonomy from lawmakers and the authority to largely decide how to go about their political remapping.
The commissions have a busy week ahead, with public hearings Tuesday in Denver, Wednesday in Aurora, Friday in Montrose and Grand Junction and Saturday in Carbondale and Frisco. The congressional redistricting commission alone will meet additionally Thursday in Salida. The public hearings will continue around the state through July and August.
The congressional redistricting commission decided to add more hearings to their public input hearing schedule, after fears that they may need adjust later in order to meet deadlines.
The deadline crunch is what led to a pleading with the state Supreme Court early in the week, asking for more time to finish the maps. The constitution requires the congressional redistricting commission to finish maps by Sept. 1.