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Colorado redistricting reform effort splits Democrats

Proposed ballot question being rewritten after concerns raised by minority voters

DENVER – A proposed ballot question that would change congressional redistricting in Colorado is being rewritten to address concerns raised by black and Latino voters.

The bipartisan proposal has caused a bit of a rift within the Colorado Democratic Party, with black and Latino Democrats at odds with certain white Democrats over the effort.

“There were, I’m sorry, a bunch of white guys sitting around the table deciding our politics on redistricting moving forward,” said state Rep. Angela Williams, D-Denver, chairwoman of the Colorado Black Caucus.

The initiative would take congressional redistricting out of the Legislature and hand the responsibility to an independent commission. The commission would include an equal number of Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated members. Meetings would be held in public, with nonpartisan staff drawing the maps. It would take a supermajority of eight of the 12 commissioners to adopt a map. Map-drawers would be required to create competitive districts.

The proposal must survive a second state review and comment hearing before proponents can collect the 98,492 signatures needed to qualify for the 2016 ballot. They have until April to work through the formalities and ballot language.

The initiative comes ahead of the 2020 census, when the next congressional redistricting process would get underway. Historically, Republicans and Democrats have fought over redrawing Colorado’s seven congressional districts, with battles over creating more competitive boundaries.

The ultimate goal of the proposal is to create “transparency and fairness” in the process, while eliminating gerrymandering, or manipulating boundaries to favor a party.

But black and Latino voters quickly raised concerns, pointing out that the language could limit minority voting blocs across the state by prohibiting drawing districts for the purpose of “augmenting ... the voting strength of a language or racial minority group.”

The proposed language also would prohibit mapping districts for purposes of “diluting” the voting strength of a minority group.

Supporters – including former Secretary of State Bernie Buescher and former House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, both Democrats – say they are listening to concerns. Another high-profile Democrat supporting the proposal is former Gov. Dick Lamm.

“I am not going to defend the process – we had to start this. We should have done a better job of outreach, and I overlooked some of that,” Ferrandino said. “But now that it’s out there, the willingness is that if you raise some legitimate concerns, we’re willing to try and address those and fix those.”

Buescher added: “All we can do is ask and hope that they are willing to participate. If some choose not to, I would regret that. ... If people choose to participate, and ask for changes, we’ll listen to them.”

In some respects, however, the damage has been done. Williams is not on board with a rewrite, suggesting that the entire process has been tainted by the fact that minority voters weren’t asked to be part of the stakeholder group from the beginning.

“While they have heard our concerns and they’re trying to rewrite the language, right now that’s non-negotiable with us because it still dilutes and affects communities of color,” Williams said. “They’re rewriting the language themselves, and we are still not involved in that rewriting process.”

On the Republican side, former House Speaker Frank McNulty, a proponent, said there was no trickery in convincing Democrats to participate.

“It’s hard for me to believe Democrats would try to make the argument that a former speaker of the House didn’t know what he was doing; that a former secretary of state didn’t know what he was doing and that a former governor didn’t know what he was doing,” McNulty said. “We all have our different take on it, but the fundamentals of what we’re trying to do here is shared by each and every one of us.”


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