Reapportionment commission begins work

The Colorado Statesman

The 11-member reapportionment commission hit the ground running on Monday with a three-hour hearing to review state demographics, the legal criteria and case law, and how it would proceed to draw new state Senate and House districts.

The commission will meet weekly in Denver until the end of June and then hit the road to talk to citizens around the state on how to draw the district boundaries.

State Demographer Elizabeth Garner pointed out that statewide, population grew by 16.9 percent, with much of the growth taking place along the Northern Front Range. Population dropped in 17 Colorado counties, mostly on the Eastern Plains and the San Luis Valley.

Some of the greatest population change took place among the state’s Hispanics, where that population increased by 41 percent, and in some counties, mostly on the Western Slope, it was up by more than 100 percent.

The committee also got its instructions on the legal criteria they will use in reapportionment, and while it includes some of the same criteria as redistricting it also isn’t quite as strict, much of it dating back to a 1974 ballot initiative.

Jeremiah Barry of Legislative Legal Services told the committee that the ideal equalized district size could be determined by just dividing the state by 65 for the House or 35 for the Senate. But unlike redistricting, where the requirement is as close to equal population in every district as possible, reapportionment allows for population deviation, which can be as much as 5 percent over/under the ideal district size.

The federal Voting Rights Act, which applies for redistricting, also applies for reapportionment, and plays a lot into how districts are drawn, Barry said. The VRA bars “packing” and “fracturing” of districts, different methods by which minorities are discriminated against when drawing maps. The VRA also prohibits states and its political subdivisions from imposing voting qualifications, standards or practices that would abridge a citizen’s right to vote based on race, color or other minority status, and is intended to protect against diluting the influence of minority voters. The remedy for such violations is usually drawing a “majority-minority” district, where the district includes a majority of minority voters, and it applies far more frequently at the reapportionment level than at the redistricting level, Barry explained. That’s happened in Denver and most recently, in House District 62 in the San Luis Valley, in 1996 and again after the 2000 census.

The Colorado Supreme Court has been consistent in following a hierarchy of criteria, beginning with an equal population requirement, although the Supreme Court sets the deviation at 5 percent rather than 10 percent. The next criteria deals with county boundaries, which was a big issue 10 years ago, Barry said.

In 1982 and 1992, the courts said that counties that were split because their populations had less than a Senate or House district were okay. Those decisions affected more than 50 counties. The Supreme Court also was okay with splitting large counties, such as Larimer, Weld and El Paso, because the lines were drawn to achieve equal population. In 1992, the Court rejected splitting Pitkin County because the map also divided the city of Aspen.

Ten years ago, the Court interpreted the language for county splits differently than it had in the past, requiring the commission to assign whole districts to counties whose populations were large enough to do so, and that’s the ruling that applies today. In response, commissioner and former Rep. Gayle Berry of Grand Junction suggested the commission could draw districts based on the 2002 ruling or use previous rulings, and Barry said his office would defend whatever the commission decided to use.

Next on the criteria is the effect of municipal boundaries, and Barry said that a Colorado Supreme Court opinion said that if a city has a population that would justify a whole district, the commission would be required to draw it that way. The intent is to minimize city splits, Barry explained, but county boundaries take precedence over city boundaries.

The last constitutional criteria deals with communities of interest, which Barry said is “whatever the commission says it is.”

The commission also needs to take into account the workload that faces county clerks once the maps are drawn, according to Douglas County Clerk Jack Arrowsmith. County clerks are required to determine the precincts and then enter them into SCORE, the statewide voter registration database. That work will take more than 200 hours, so the sooner the commission gets their maps done, the better, he said. “Please use a light touch. The less you do, the easier it will be to do [our work] in that short time period.”

The reapportionment plan has to be court-approved and filed with the Secretary of State by December 14, and because Colorado’s primary and caucus dates are moving, that leaves only 19 working days (excluding holidays) between when the plan has to be done and the first possible caucus date, the first Tuesday in February. “Don’t get your hopes up that we’ll get it done early,” mused Commissioner and Rep. Matt Jones, D-Louisville. “We’ll do what we can.”

The commission is required to have a preliminary plan ready for public comment by September 5, and a final plan ready for submission to the Colorado Supreme Court by October 7.

Marianne@coloradostatesman.com