Map credit: National Atlas.gov
There’s little in political life as contentious as redistricting. The last three times Colorado lawmakers tried to draw Congressional lines, the maps ended up in court. Now legislators are trying something new to avoid that this year -- a bipartisan committe.
For the past few weeks, ten lawmakers have been on the road, traveling to high school auditoriums and county meeting rooms across the state to hear what the public has to say about how to divide up the state.
BALMER: "The members of the committee have been aggressive in asking people, 'where do you want to be? And where do you not want to be, what district do you not want to be in?'"
Republican representative David Balmer is co-chairing the bi-partisan legislative committee that’s drawing the map their colleagues will vote on. They’ll have to tweak the boundaries of each of the state’s seven Congressional districts to make sure they all have an equal number of people.
At the hearing in Castle Rock, some people came with very specific ideas about where districts should go. But lot of what the committee heard were the two eternal poles of the redistricting debate -- should the priority be making districts competitive, or keeping communities together under one representative?
Francine Thompson pleaded for community.
THOMPSON: "I like Douglas County, the Republican Party has done very well in Douglas County. That’s one of the reasons I chose to live there. If you’re not happy with it, you can leave, you can move to Boulder."
Alice Ramsey, though, came to ask the committee to create politically balanced districts.
RAMSEY: "Safe districts do not represent all of the people in their districts, and I think we need to have the representatives represent everybody."
But when Balmer pressed Ramsey on whether the committee should split Douglas County -- her home -- to create a competitive district, she hesitated.
RAMSEY: "I don’t know that there’s an answer to that either. And I understand, I know all of that. It’s just my wish."
For Balmer, a main priority is drawing districts that respect real world lines as much as possible -- city and county boundaries, even watersheds and fire districts. But because people tend to pick neighbors they agree with, that comes at the cost of competitiveness.
BALMER: "If we respect the El Paso county line, the 5th Congressional district is going to be a safe Congressional district for the Republican party. Likewise, we are planning to respect the Denver County boundary, so that will result in the 1st Congressional district being a safe Democrat district."
This kind of thinking works out well for both parties, according to Colorado College political science professor Bob Loevy. He’s studied redistricting and says even when politicians talk about competitiveness, it’s pretty much just lip service.
LOEVY: "Competitive districts is like a belief that baseball is the national pastime. Even if you don’t believe it’s the national pastime, you have to say that to maintain your popularity in the community."
Loevy thinks the parties will still try to wiggle the lines in their favor in the state’s most competitive districts - the 7th and the 3rd - but he doesn’t foresee the same kind of fighting Colorado witnessed last time around. Back then there was a whole new Congressional district to add -- something the court had to do after the legislature couldn’t agree on anything. Republicans tried to overturn the map the following year. Eventually the Supreme Court over-ruled their effort. This time, says Loevy, there’s a lot less at stake.
LOEVY: "Both parties are happy with their incumbent members of Congress, my view is they’ll just make the slight adjustments that need to be made."
Just how well the parties can agree on those slight adjustments will become clear in the next few weeks. The Redistricting Committee holds its final hearing in Grand Junction on Saturday, and hopes to have a map to the legislature by mid-April.