DENVER (AP) — Colorado’s independent redistricting commission approved a new congressional map minutes before midnight on Tuesday, in the latest test of whether citizens can draw legislative maps that are fairer than ones sketched by politicians and a sign that the redistricting process has kicked into high gear.
The once-a-decade redistricting bonanza happens as states adjust the boundaries of their congressional and statehouse districts to keep pace with changes in population. Because the U.S. Census Bureau delayed releasing its new population numbers for several months due to the coronavirus pandemic, redistricting is happening at warp speed this year, as both political parties battle ferociously to shape maps that benefit them.
The new Colorado map must be formally approved by the state Supreme Court, but it culminates a breakneck process to redraw lines in the fast-growing state and add a new congressional district. That seat will go in the heavily-Latino suburbs north of Denver. The commission also made relatively minor changes to the state’s other seats, preserving a 4-3 balance of districts in favor of Democrats.
In an evenly divided country, redistricting can give one party a significant leg up. Republicans only need to flip four seats to regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives next year, for example, and several in the party anticipate being able to gain that many seats from redistricting alone.
Amid the partisan jousting, an increasing number of independent commissions have started drawing maps, hoping to take politics out of the process. Colorado is one of three states that has shifted to a commission system since 2010 after its voters in 2018 approved a pair of ballot measures laying out a new process. Democrats backed the measure, and the result is a congressional map that preserves four safe Democratic seats and three safe Republican ones, while creating a new, competitive district north of Denver.
That means the state, which voted for President Joe Biden by 13.5 percentage points last year, could end up with an evenly divided congressional delegation. It’s part of the reason some Democrats have become queasy about their party’s partial embrace of nonpartisan redistricting.
Still, Democrats in Oregon this week threw bipartisanship out the window, as the state’s Democratic governor signed a map drawn by statehouse Democrats who rescinded their deal with the GOP minority to jointly draw maps. In New York, Democrats may overrule their own redistricting commission so they can eliminate more Republican congressional districts.
Meanwhile, Republicans in fast-growing Texas, which gained two congressional seats due to its population growth over the past decade, released a preliminary map that’d shore up their majority. In Georgia, where the GOP also controls the process, party leaders released a map that’d likely switch one Atlanta-area congressional district from Democratic to Republican control.
Because they control more state governments and have fewer commissions, Republicans hold the upper hand in redistricting, controlling the pen drawing 187 congressional districts while Democrats only have power to draw 75.
Still, Republicans are hemmed in by where growth has been happening — in big, multicultural cities and suburbs that lean Democratic like Houston and Atlanta. That’s limited what Republicans can do during this cycle.
“They’re losing ground in suburbs, so if you try to do funny things in the suburbs, you put yourself at huge risks in the next election,” said Jonathan Cervas, a redistricting expert at Carnegie-Mellon University.
In Colorado, Republicans have only won a single statewide election — for state university regent — since 2014. But the map the commission approved mainly preserves the status quo, with four safe Democratic seats, three Republican ones and the new eight congressional district swing seats that could theoretically leave Colorado’s delegation split 4-4.
“It’s exciting to know that district eight is very competitive and it adheres to all our constitutional criteria that we’ve been charged with doing,” said commissioner Paula Espinoza, a Democrat. “The plan was not drawn to protect any incumbent, candidate or party.”
The commission debated for six hours Tuesday night before approving the map on an 11-1 vote. The map will now go to the Supreme Court for approval, which is seen as largely a formality unless there’s a legal challenge.
“I hate this map,” said Greg Brophy, a former Republican state senator, after the commission vote. “It just doesn’t treat ag (agriculture) the way it should. But I’m happy they did their job and ultimately voted for a map.”
“So much better than 2011,” added Brophy, alluding to the last redistricting cycle, where Democrats convinced the state Supreme Court to implement their maps.
Joe Kabourek of RepresentUs, which advocates for commissions to draw maps, said he was excited about the Colorado process. “We hope it’s going to be a contrast” with partisan maps elsewhere, he said.
But Kabourek warned that it’s hard to draw many conclusions about the direction of redistricting right now. “We’re just starting the process,” he said, “and there’s a long way to go.”