Three years ago, Coloradans passed Constitutional Amendments Y and Z with overwhelming support. In one clear voice, the people of Colorado declared that gerrymandering had no place in our state, regardless of which party was in power at the time. These amendments were carefully crafted and thoroughly vetted to ensure that Colorado has an objective set of rules in place for drawing the district lines that have such an impact on the outcome of our elections.
But despite the careful negotiations and the overwhelming support from voters, Amendments Y and Z did not cover one partisan elected office that is vulnerable to gerrymandering: county commissioner. With redistricting efforts already underway this year, we are happy to report that last week the Governor signed our legislation to fix this problem.
The issue is that while Amendment Y reformed the process for the drawing of federal congressional districts — and therefore districts for state board of education and CU regents — and Amendment Z reformed the process for state House and state Senate districts, county commissioner districts fall along different lines and were left out of the process.
This has gone unaddressed, perhaps even largely unnoticed, because for most counties in Colorado this isn’t a big problem. Almost all counties have three commissioners who are required to live in their specific districts, but they’re elected on a countywide basis. So while district lines could be drawn to keep certain individuals from running for county commissioner, an advantage cannot be given to a specific party, and minority communities can’t be stripped of their voting power through gerrymandering.
So why does it matter? Well, El Paso County, as well as Arapahoe and Weld counties, operate under a different system. They all elect their commissioners, at least in part, by individual districts. So when they redraw their district maps this year, they wouldn’t have been subject to the same high standards Colorado voters approved in Amendments Y and Z. There was nothing stopping them from drawing lines to favor a specific party or discriminate against a certain community.
It’s a problem that only affects a few elections, but one that we addressed through our legislation. It’s as easy as using the proven, voter-approved model of Amendments Y and Z. Our bill, HB21-1047, applies the bulk of the provisions of Y and Z to counties that currently or in the future choose to elect commissioners by district instead of on a countywide basis.
Our bill mandates that the redistricting process must include fair criteria for drawing of districts, maps drawn by nonpartisan staff, and robust public participation. We’re excited about the prospect of the public getting more involved in how these lines are drawn. Voters in these three counties from every side of the political spectrum will have the opportunity to join in on the conversation and let their leaders know what fair representation should look like.
But it’s not just El Paso, Weld and Arapahoe county residents who should care about this issue — it’s all of us. Having an established and fair redistricting process will allow other counties to move toward electing commissioners by district instead of through countywide contests.
Such district races will give individual voters the opportunity to meet candidates face-to-face before making a decision. It will also allow more first-time candidates and candidates from communities of color to break through and win elections with support from their neighbors. This will lead to more competitive elections and to elected representatives who reflect the communities they represent and are hopefully more responsive and accountable to their constituents.
Colorado voters have already shown partisan gerrymandering the door. Now with the passage of this bill, we have taken one more step to further eradicate it from our state.