Colorado Supreme Court to hear arguments on Latino representation in state’s congressional map

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Colorado independent redistricting commission
The final congressional redistricting map submitted by Colorado’s independent redistricting commission.

Does Colorado’s new congressional map unconstitutionally dilute the voting power of Latino communities? 

That is a question the state supreme court will have to answer as it considers whether to approve the map submitted by the Independent Redistricting Commission.

The court will hear oral arguments on Tuesday from the commission and from groups who say the commission failed to meet constitutional requirements. In total, fifteen organizations, local governments and individuals have filed briefs supporting or opposing the final map.

Justices will either approve the map, setting it in stone for the next decade, or they will send it back to the commission with guidelines for revisions. The state must have its final map no later than December 15th, which will give Congressional candidates adequate time to prepare ahead of the November 2022 election.

Many objections center on CO-8 and CO-3

Under the constitutional amendment that established the state’s new redistricting process, the congressional map must not dilute a racial or language minority group's electoral influence. However, several Latino groups believe the map does just that.

Under the new map, the state’s most heavily Latino district will be the new CO-8, which stretches from Commerce City to Greeley, with 38.5 percent of residents identifying as Hispanic on last year’s census. CO-8 is also the state’s most evenly split politically, well within the margin to be won by either a Democrat or a Republican.

Four groups opposed to the map submitted analyses showing that in past elections white voters in the district have strongly supported Republican candidates, while Latino voters generally went for Democrats. 

The groups argue that Latinos will have little power to elect the congressperson of their choice in CO-8 as it is currently drawn. They say this is because Latino communities tend to include a larger share of noncitizens who can’t vote, and because Latino voters turn out at lower rates than whites.

“Voters were promised [...] that there would be enhanced protection of minority votes,” under the new redistricting system, said Tonette Salazar, who is representing the Colorado Latino Leadership and Advocacy Organization, known as CLLARO. “This criteria has been prioritized in the constitution.”

In its brief, CLLARO also argues that the lines for the redrawn CO-3, which covers western and southern Colorado, would similarly lead to a weaker voice for Latino voters. The group urges the justices to order revisions there as well.

The other groups raising concerns about the map’s treatment of Latino communities are the League of United Latin American Citizens, known as LULAC; Colorado Common Cause, which is nonpartisan but tends to align with Democrats; and All On The Line, which is associated with Democratic efforts to change the redistricting process nationally.

A coalition of conservative Latino religious groups in Northern Colorado filed a brief arguing the district successfully protects the political interests of its Latino residents.

No ‘magic number’

The groups challenging the map argue that the commission prioritized drawing a politically competitive CO-8 at the expense of the district’s Latino voters.

“They spent a lot of time talking about competitiveness. They could have done the same with BIPOC and language minorities,” said Amanda Gonzalez, the executive director of Common Cause’s Colorado chapter.

Gonzalez and others point out that, while competitiveness is on the list of criteria for the commission to consider, it comes last. They say it must take a backseat to other priorities, such as complying with the Voting Rights Act and maintaining communities of interest, which can include ethnic groups. 

Most importantly, Gonzales said, the constitution requires commissioners to think about “how do you ensure communities, especially the ones that have been systematically disenfranchised, have a meaningful voice?”

While she acknowledged there is “no magic number” for how many voters of color there need to be in a district in order to wield influence, Gonzales said the commission erred by only looking at general election results to judge the politics of a district. Considering primary contests would have illuminated divisions between white and Latino Democrats, she said.

However, in a brief defending its map, the commission argued that the groups have misinterpreted how Amendment Y — which sets up the new redistricting process —  applies to the interests of minority voters. They said requiring the state to draw a district that ensures voters of a specific ethinic group can elect their prefered candidate, even if that group doesn’t make up a majority in the district, prioritizes race in a way that could violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. constitution.

Lawyers for the commission warned there could be “dire consequences” should the state supreme court order a new map based on opponents’ arguments.  They said such a map would be vulnerable to a federal lawsuit, with the result that both the map — and even portions of Colorado’s redistricting process — could be thrown out as unconstitutional.

Challenges could lead to a more Democratic map

Reworking the map to give more strength to Latino voters would likely result in political consequences, too. The majority of Latino voters in the areas being considered tend to support Democratic candidates.

The map the commission approved at its final meeting created three safe Democratic districts, three safe Republican ones, one that leans Democratic, and one — CO-8 — that is a complete toss up. Many Democrats say that map — which could potentially send an equal number of Democrats and Republicans to Congress — is unrepresentative, given that Colorado voters have broadly supported Democratic candidates in recent statewide contests.  

By contrast, maps suggested by the challenging groups reconceive the state’s district lines in some big ways, and many would most likely send five Democrats and three Republicans to Congress.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is tasked with electing Democrats to the U.S. House, also filed a brief arguing that the process for picking the final map was flawed. The brief doesn’t single out specific ways the map is lacking, but it asks the court to consider alternative maps. 

“The Congressional Commission’s down-to-the-wire approval of the plan now before this Court was the end result of irregular, ad hoc procedures the Commission adopted mid-process amid the Commissioners’ clear recognition of their looming deadline,” the brief said, before going on to describe how commissioners struggled to come to agreement on a map minutes before midnight at their final meeting.