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Political balance, unaffiliated members key to redistricting commission’s success

As a lifelong unaffiliated voter, the chance to participate in an inherently political process on an equal footing with affiliated voters was very appealing.

Schell

I was thrilled to be the first of the initial six randomly seated commissioners on the inaugural Colorado Independent Congressional Redistricting Commission. Partisan leadership had input on choosing the remaining affiliated commissioners. Four unaffiliated Coloradans joined four Democrats and four Republicans on a 6½-month adventure culminating in a new eight-district Congressional map that was unanimously approved by the Colorado Supreme Court.

The commission was created in 2018 by Amendment Y with overwhelming voter approval and requiring at least one commissioner from the Western Slope – I was that one (and only). Political balance and inclusion of unaffiliated commissioners were key factors to the commission’s success, an opinion that is not universally shared. Partisanship on the commission was neither dominant nor absent and the political balance helped diffuse the influence of some of the commission’s more vocal and strong-willed members.

The foremost requirements in the Colorado Constitution for creating congressional districts are precise mathematical population equality, contiguous geography and compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Keeping “communities of interest” whole is technically a secondary goal, on equal footing with keeping political subdivisions whole and making districts as compact as possible. Maximizing the number of competitive districts is the lowest priority constitutional goal, something that many public commenters found both surprising and disappointing.

The almost-four-month delay in the release of the 2020 census data required the commission in mid-June to direct nonpartisan staff members to draw the Preliminary Plan using the best data available at the time. The Preliminary Plan included a new eighth Congressional district north of Denver and kicked off 36 public hearings that spanned the state, from Lamar to Sterling, to Craig, to Durango. Traveling over 5,000 miles during July and August to experience the diversity of the state firsthand was insightful and exhausting. I will never again criticize a politician on the stump who misidentifies which city they are in.

The oral and written public comments submitted at the hearings and through the website were invaluable and broad ranging, demonstrating overwhelming public support of the independent redistricting process. Three additional maps followed the Preliminary Plan, each reflecting the evolution of the commission’s thought process. Nonpartisan staff’s support of the commission’s efforts was unfailing, even when the commission’s directions were less specific than might have been preferred.

The seminal question of whether splitting the state east-west or north-south best represented communities of interest was debated at length by the commission. There was a strong push for creating a southern district stretching from Utah to Kansas, in part premised on Southeast and Southwest Colorado sharing a community of interest. I deemed this connection extremely tenuous, based on my lived experience in Southwest Colorado, my own detailed analysis of the purported connections and community input. In addition, creation of a southern district would have resulted in splitting both the Western Slope and the Eastern Plains in half. Breaking apart these two rural regions with their individual, historical shared interests seemed inappropriate to me.

The commission split 7-4 in a vote to identify as a community of interest a “core” southern district comprised of 11 counties stretching between Montezuma and Las Animas counties, an area that was kept whole in the final map approved 11-1 by the commission. The population added from the southeast counties required that the Western Slope shed population elsewhere to maintain population equality between districts. The result was the ski- and tourism-oriented counties along Interstate 70 being moved into a more Front Range-centric district.

Early in the process I was excoriated for being a Democrat in disguise because of the political contributions my husband and I had made; late in the process, I was excoriated for being a Republican for my unwillingness to split the state north-south. I believe I’ve earned my unaffiliated credentials.

Lori Schell, a Durango resident, is a member of the Colorado Independent Congressional Redistricting Commission.