Court and competitive districts

State Supreme Court right to recognize political reality

Congressional redistricting is a political process. Republicans and Democrats alike try to use the event to gain electoral advantage. But while they obviously compete, in some ways the interests of the two parties are aligned – against those of the voters.

It is in that context that the state Supreme Court’s recognition of the importance of competitive districts should be seen. Both parties would prefer to draw districts that give them an overall advantage. So too, would the special interests that too often define the bases of both parties.

It is also true, however, that they often effectively conspire to limit competition. It is the people of Colorado who stand to gain from more competitive districts.

Redistricting happens every 10 years following the constitutionally mandated federal census. The 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are apportioned among the states according to population, with the proviso that every state has at least one.

Colorado neither gained nor lost seats with the 2010 census, but federal law requires each district has an equal numbers of people and populations do shift within the state. In any case, districts are redrawn every decade.

Beyond equal population, other factors also must be considered. From the state’s website, “Other criteria that courts have looked at to assess congressional plans include: 1) absence of racial discrimination; 2) compactness and contiguity of districts; 3) preservation of county or municipal boundaries; and, 4) preservation of communities of interest.”

When the process was once again thrown into court last year, a judge picked a congressional districting map drawn by Democrats. That decision was upheld by the state Supreme Court in December. The full opinion, however, was not published until last week.

In its 6-1 ruling, the court held that the map chosen better represents “communities of interest” as the law requires. Beyond that, though, the court said, “We hold that consideration of competitiveness is consistent with the ultimate goal of maximizing fair and effective representation.”

That, far more than which party “won” this fight, is of lasting importance.

The drawing of congressional districts can be used to create electoral ghettos that are lopsidedly made up of like-minded voters. It can also be done in such a way as to spread out those voters to dilute their influence. Doing either according to race or ethnicity is illegal, but by party is not.

But that both marginalizes voters and lessons their voice in Congress. A voter not affiliated with the dominant party in a uncompetitive district can easily feel disenfranchised. Safe districts also play to their parties’ extremes. They tend to elect the most liberal and most conservative members of Congress – who are also often the least effective legislators.

Of course, not all districts can be made competitive. Downtown Denver is no more likely to pick a conservative Republican than Colorado Springs would choose a liberal Democrat. But the more districts in which both parties have a chance the better for the whole state.

Competitive districts also better reflect the state. Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, which includes Durango, has gone back and forth between Democrats and Republicans. So have the state’s U.S. Senate seats and control of the Legislature. Party registration is almost equally divided between the two parties and unaffiliated voters.

The merits of the actual map aside, the court served Colorado well by including competition as a criteria in reapportioning.