Colorado’s redistricting deadlock not unusual
May 5, 2011
DENVER (AP) – Colorado political parties promised to work together to forge bipartisan new congressional lines as required by law. But in the closing days of this year’s legislative session, that promise seems nearly unreachable with both sides bickering over how to divvy up the state’s seven congressional seats.
Who’s surprised? No one.
Partisan wrangling, lawsuits and finger-pointing are the rule, not the exception, when states redraw congressional and legislative districts to account for population changes every 10 years, analysts said.
Colorado’s divided Legislature is no exception.
After Democrats and Republicans lapped the state this year gathering public input on new congressional lines and returned to Denver to start penciling the new boundaries, talks almost immediately broke down. On Thursday, less than a week before this year’s term ends, both chambers planned rival hearings on their own maps in hopes of proving their plans are best.
Will either side convince the other? Fat chance.
Democrats said their maps are best because they make districts more competitive, where either party has a chance. Moderate districts tend to produce moderate members of Congress.
Democratic Sen. Rollie Heath of Boulder, the Democrats’ redistricting chairman, routinely says that voters don’t want “congressmen for life” but would rather have districts in which both parties have a say.
However, the party’s first proposals have looked so different from existing congressional lines that Republicans howled that Democrats were trying to water down rural votes by pairing conservative rural areas with urban and suburban voters.
On the Republican side, GOP lawmakers are floating maps that look more like current congressional districts. Republicans’ suggestions would make re-election likely for the state’s four GOP members of Congress and could leave the state political landscape largely as it is.
Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty has accused his opposition of trying to redraw districts to knock off Republican incumbents, especially Rep. Mike Coffman in suburban Denver and Rep. Cory Gardner in northeastern Colorado.
“I can’t in good conscience rip Colorado’s congressional districts apart” to help Democrats seeking congressional office, McNulty said this week.
Both sides, naturally, said they’re still trying to avoid a redistricting lawsuit. But they’re careful to add that should the matter go to court, they have reason to believe they could prevail.
The preening doesn’t surprise Tim Storey, a redistricting analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures, who follows redistricting fights. Storey said that congressional and legislative redistricting nearly always ends up in court, though politicians say they’re trying to avoid lawsuits.
Last decade, 40 states went to court to resolve new political districts, he said. This year, litigation has already been filed in about a dozen states, in some cases before any maps have been drawn, Storey said.
“It’s not that the process of redistricting is that bad. It’s the fact that the stakes are so high,” he said. “They go to court to see if they can get a better deal.”
So even if Colorado’s lawmakers agree to new district lines before the final gavels fall next week, there’s little reason to hope rounds of lawsuits won’t follow.
The Legislature could always return to Denver to try again, so long as new congressional lines are in place before candidates need to qualify for primaries in 2012. Lawmakers can call themselves into a special redistricting session, or if they don’t agree, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper could force them into session. And so far, the governor has given no word that he’d pull the trigger on a special session with no deal in the offing.
Asked about the prospect earlier this week, Hickenlooper spokesman Eric Brown replied in a short email, “We are optimistic the Legislature will get it done. We won’t speculate on a special session and will cross that bridge if and when we come to it.”