Jerry Kopel


Census decides Colorado’s political future

In the United States April Fool’s Day, also known as United States Census Taking Day, will occur April 1, 2010.

What does that mean for Colorado? Latest numbers from the U.S. Census put Colorado in the “green zone,” with no gains or losses of congressional seats. But you never know.

Next year’s national census will cost at least $15 billion. And it will be subject to arguments over census decisions based on methodology. For example, population counts would rise if census-takers focus on counting homeless and undocumented residents. Would an increase in both populations give Colorado a shot at an eighth congressional seat?

The battle over adding two more congressional seats — a Democratic seat for Washington, D.C., and a Republican seat for Utah — will make the headlines, but it will play almost no role as to which states win seats, lose seats or just tread water.

Congress presently has 435 seats. According to the U.S. Constitution, any state with less than 2/435ths of the nation’s population (probably seven), gets only one seat.

Present counts estimate the U.S. population at 305.7 million, and it could be 310 million by 2010. Divide 310 million by 435 seats and you get a congressional seat for each multiple of around 713,000 in population.

The state demographic office in the Department of Local Affairs estimates that Colorado’s population in 2010 will be about 5.2 million. That is quite a bit under what is needed for an eighth congressional seat.

When Colorado gained its seventh congressional seat in 2002, our population had risen from around 3.3 million in 1990 to 4.3 million in 2000. That was an actual gain of nearly one-third, ranking Colorado the third fastest-growing state, behind Nevada and Arizona.

Each of Colorado’s seven congressional seats represented a population of about 610,000 in 2000. If the present prediction from the demographer’s office holds true, each of the seven congressional seats in 2010 would represent 740,000 people.

Regardless of whether we gain an eighth seat, the state Legislature and the governor elected in 2010 will control redistricting of congressional seats under the state Constitution.

Currently, the Republicans in the Colorado Legislature are in no position to halt a Democratic reapportionment of the 740,000 population in each of the seven congressional districts. They’ll be highly motivated in 2010 to defeat the Democratic candidate for governor — probably the incumbent, Gov. Bill Ritter — and/or to try to capture control of the state House and Senate — or one of the two.

The governor and Legislature are often of different parties in reapportionment years. Most recently: 1991-’92, governor (D), Legislature (R); 2001-’02, governor (R), Legislature split (D) and (R). In such cases, the results of the Legislature’s efforts end up being decided or as ordered by the Colorado Supreme Court.

We may start off the 2012 election with a 2010 population of at or around 740,000 for each congressional district, but by 2014 or 2016, the population will be skewed in ways no one can now imagine. And it won’t be straightened out until the 2020 census.

Forecasts for 2020 give Colorado 6.2 million people, and each of the seven seats in Congress (if no eighth seat is added) would represent some 886,000 people.

Obviously, the present recession will play a role in which states win or lose population. The outlook for employment in much of the West continues to look more optimistic than in the East. People will move for jobs, and not just for the scenery.

Unlike the congressional seats, the number of seats in the Colorado House and Senate remain stable, at 65 House and 35 Senate members. In 1920, state legislators represented 919,000 persons. In 2010, they will represent 5.2 million.

State legislative district boundaries are determined by the 11-member State Reapportionment Commission, with only four of the 11 members chosen by the Legislature, three by the governor and four by the state Supreme Court chief justice.

Based on past elections, you can anticipate a 6-5 political breakdown, or 5-5, with one independent.

This column presented the past history and future probabilities on reapportionment of the state Legislature in 2008.

Although lots of residents now have access to e-mail, blogs and other Internet connections, there still is nothing that beats a personal handshake at the door from someone running for a legislative seat. But that gets to be harder each year as campaigns and campaign literature become more expensive and the number of homes to visit keeps expanding.

When the population reaches 5.2 million, each Colorado House member will represent 80,000 people, and each Senate member, 148,500. That “average” number will change every election, but won’t be considered for purposes of district boundaries.

By 2020, in round numbers, there would be one Senate member for every 177,000 people and one House member for every 95,000 people. Again, the larger population — evenly split for 2020 — would not be evenly split for the rest of that decade.

The time is now ripe for Legislative Council to compare Colorado legislative and population numbers with numbers in similar states, discover problems and consider solutions applied elsewhere.

The concept of local governance can fade quickly when even the hardiest of candidates has just too many doors to knock on and can’t possibly meet face-to-face with most potential voters.

Without too much inconvenience, in the present House and Senate chambers, we can seat four more Senate members and eight more House members. In fact, the state voted to add four senators in the early 1960s, but the change was part of an otherwise unconstitutional amendment that disobeyed the requirement that district populations must be equal and was reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The 12-member increase could be placed on the state ballot in 2010.

Here’s how Colorado’s population has grown, and how it is estimated it will grow, in round numbers:

• 1900 — 540,000
• 1910 — 800,000
• 1920 — 940,000
• 1950 — 1,325,000
• 1970 — 2,210,000
• 1990 — 3,294,000
• 2000 — 4,300,000
• 2010 — 5,200,000
• 2020 — 6,200,000

Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House.