Census data show 3rd Congressional District must expand

DENVER – The Western Slope’s congressional district – already among the largest in the nation – needs to get bigger, according to U.S. Census numbers released Wednesday.

The 3rd Congressional District’s population grew to 706,186, but other districts in Boulder, south Denver and Colorado Springs grew even faster.

The new numbers will require state legislators to add people to the 3rd District when they draw political maps this spring.

For U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, and his yet-unnamed Democratic challenger, it will mean even more area to cover in the 2012 campaign.

The Census counts the American population every 10 years so states can draw new congressional districts. Colorado’s population increased 16.9 percent, to 5,029,196, but the growth was not fast enough to earn an eighth congressional district.

The new size of each of Colorado’s seven districts will be 718,457. Sophisticated computer mapping programs allow legislators to draw districts that vary in size by only a couple of people, said Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, who is the co-chairman of a committee of 10 legislators who will try to draw the new districts.

Legislators will have 10 public meetings around the state starting this weekend. The closest meetings to the Four Corners will be in Alamosa and Grand Junction.

By April 14, the panel hopes to have a bipartisan map drawn for the whole Legislature to approve. It would be a rare accomplishment because the 2000 redistricting process stretched out for three years and was decided in court.

The biggest changes will happen in the most compact districts. District 6 in suburban Denver, represented by Republican Mike Coffman, had the most growth in the state and needs to shed 80,000 people. The city of Denver’s district, represented by Democrat Diana DeGette, needs to gain about 40,000.

But Tipton’s 3rd district might have to add an entire county or trade a less populated county for a more populated one.

State Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, serves on the redistricting committee and said the Western Slope district will be tricky to draw because it is already so large.

“You really need to have a manageable size. I think the question is where do you pick up population without increasing the size,” Schwartz said.

One possibility is to add Chaffee County, home to Salida, she said.

There is very little chance of any of the Four Corners counties leaving the 3rd district, because the districts have to connect geographically.

After the legislators on the bipartisan committee hear public testimony the next three weeks, they will get a chance to draw their own maps using the Census data they received Wednesday.

Legislative leaders hope to have the maps finalized before they end their yearly session on May 11.

Wednesday’s Census numbers also show that Southwest Colorado’s state Senate district and its two state House districts each will have to lose about 1,000 people to maintain parity with the rest of the state.

A separate commission will draw state legislative maps this summer.