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Local contribution to state effort to end gerrymandering under way

Two legislative and one constitution mandate proposed

By Toni Todd

Sometimes, it’s not so much how residents of a community vote in an election that determines the winner, but how the borders of their legislative district are manipulated that affects the outcome of that election.

A push toward fair, legislative re-districting is under way in Colorado. Gunnison resident and former state legislator Kathleen Curry is leading the charge to end gerrymandering. In partnership with the Colorado League of Women Voters (LWV), and with help from a non-profit, non-partisan organization called Fair Districts Colorado, she’s filed three new ballot initiatives designed to improve Colorado’s often-contentious redistricting process.

Gerrymandering is the practice of redrawing and reshaping borders around legislative districts in a way that favors one political party over another. It has also been used to suppress the African-American vote, and to deprive Black and Latino voters of power in some states.

“Under our current system, politicians end up picking their voters instead of voters picking their politicians,” said Curry. “With our initiatives, more elections will be decided by competitive November elections instead of safe-seat primaries, making candidates actually compete for more voters.” Curry is the only unaffiliated candidate ever to have served in the Colorado state legislature.

The three new initiatives include one that seeks to amend the Colorado Constitution mandating the end to gerrymandering in the state; one that proposes, by statute, fair re-districting for state legislative elections; and one focused on the same for congressional districts. Links to the full texts of the initiatives can be found on the Fair Districts Colorado website.

Every 10 years, congressional and state legislative district boundaries are redrawn to adjust for population and demographic shifts. Colorado has a checkered history of redistricting abuses, with claims of gerrymandering launched by both parties.

The Colorado Constitution currently mandates a bipartisan effort in redrawing districts. The new initiatives would add independent and unaffiliated representation in that process, too.

Curry points to Gunnison and Delta counties as perfect example of gerrymandering. “We got divided in half,” she said, explaining that what happened here violated current redistricting directives. “Even the city was divided. They called it a midnight gerrymandering. We could have appealed. It violated the language currently in place that prevents this.” As a result, Curry said, “People in Durango end up with Gunnison in their district. We’re a good example of what shouldn’t be done.”

The initiatives are similar to an attempt a few years ago by a group called End Gerrymandering Now. The Colorado Independent reports that this time, proponents say they’ve gotten more input from minority groups, and they’ve beefed up language in the measures to add the words “racial” and “language group” to determine communities of interest, a criteria in redistricting that seeks to keep people who have similar interests together within voting lines.

The current initiatives have garnered bi-partisan support. The effort has also received accolades from the Centrist Project, a national organization dedicated to encouraging more independent candidates.

“We’ve reached a point in our political discourse that’s just unhealthy, resulting in cynicism and citizens withdrawing their participation,” said Colorado League of Women Voters first vice president Toni Larson. “We must do better. To stop the practice of gerrymandering, we must start by removing our map-drawing from the partisan battlefield and giving it back to voters.”

“The ugly truth is that partisan gerrymandering rigs elections and undermines democracies,” said former state senator Ron Tupa (D-Boulder).

“The current process for legislative redistricting is constitutionally controlled,” said Curry. “Changing the constitution is the best way to go,” she said, but it’s also the most difficult, especially since the 2016 passing of Amendment 71, also known as Raise the Bar. Changing Colorado’s constitution is now more arduous. To do so requires 2,400 signatures from each of Colorado’s 35 congressional districts to qualify. Getting enough signatures from each district is tough, time-consuming and expensive, adding an estimated $500,000 to the cost of getting such an initiative on the ballot.

“I supported Raise the Bar,” said Curry, even though it’s posing a challenge to her efforts now. “The positive thing about it is you get people all over the state familiar with your measure. Once you start your campaign, you have a statewide network of support.”

The cost, however, is daunting. So, just in case they can’t raise all the money they need to collect signatures from all the districts in time, they’ll still have their statutory initiatives. Those change the law rather than the constitution.

The signatures required for statutory initiatives—about 98,000 each—are much easier and less costly to get, because they can all be collected in the metro area. The weakness to that approach is that the Colorado legislature can, at any point, agree to disregard the will of the voters and change or eliminate the statute. So, it’s not as absolute as a constitutional amendment.

There are two statutory initiatives rather than one, because naming conventions don’t allow combining initiatives; proponents need one that covers state legislative districts and one to cover congressional districts.

More signatures are still needed to qualify all of these initiatives’ respective petitions, but the goal is for all three to land on Colorado’s November 2018 ballot.

Former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has launched a social media campaign to end the practice of gerrymandering nationwide, and there are local movements afoot in many states.

To follow the national conversation, to go #EndGerrymandering on Twitter.

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