Opinion

NOONAN | Y and Z’s competitive districts would have to cut across common interests

Author: Paula Noonan - October 16, 2018 - Updated: October 16, 2018

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Paula Noonan
Paula Noonan

Amendments Y and Z on congressional and state legislature redistricting propose to take the politics out of redrawing district boundaries based on the 2020 census.

The amendments operate on the correct premise that current redistricting procedures generally pit the two parties against each other to create the most districts that heavily favor their party. This strategy guarantees the parties a specific number of seats, making them cheap to win.

In today’s market, a competitive state Senate seat will cost a minimum of $200,000, using how much Republicans have raised, or somewhere above $325,000, using how much Democrats have raised in 2018.

Districts are only competitive within a narrow percentage range, no greater than seven percentage points between the parties. When districts are within a three point spread, every vote counts.

The most significant federal impact on redistricting is the Voting Rights Act that protects minority group voting. The state’s constitution rewards redistricting based on communities of interest. Amendments Y and Z require “fair and effective representation of constituents using politically neutral criteria.”

Here’s the hitch. No politically neutral criteria exist and today’s political scene makes communities of interest political.

For minority groups in many cases, geography is district destiny. Denver and various portions of surrounding metro counties, with the exception of Douglas County, are where the majority of minorities in the state live. The consequence is that most Denver districts run from 15 to 30 percent plus to Democrats. Congressional District 1 has been a Democratic seat since forever.

Due to El Paso County’s large military presence and its conservative reputation, most of its state districts run 15 to 30 percent or higher to the Republican side. Congressional District 5 has been in Republican hands since forever.

Rural Colorado is even a bigger state district landslide to the Republicans, especially legislative seats on the east side of the state and most portions of the west side, with the exception of southwest Colorado in the Durango area and Alamosa.

This distribution by geographic and “common” interests will constrain the construction of competitive state and Congressional districts. Another consequence of common interest districts will be to embed the polarization status quo into Colorado politics for another decade.

To untie the common interest knot, redistricting commissions will have to give uncommon interests a seat at the table.

Take northern Colorado as an example. Legislative state House districts in the northeast to east central parts of the state are uncompetitive Republican majority. Move west toward the Front Range, and the districts turn Democratic. Then move more west into the mountains, and with the exception of the Steamboat area, the districts turn Republican.

What if the commission decided to do several House district strips across the northern section of the state, east to west, containing even numbers of rural and urban voters which would likely result in even numbers of Republicans and Democrats. Rural and urban/suburban candidates and voters would have to negotiate with each other.

In the Denver metro area, what if the commission created state districts by taking slices of Denver up through Adams County and Brighton Counties and down through Arapahoe and into Douglas County. That configuration would create more politically diverse and competitive districts.

Right now, Jefferson County and part of Adams County are organized into four highly competitive state Senate districts. Candidate and proposition signs up and down west metro streets show the competition. The three competitive Jeffco districts slice north-south. That’s the kind of line drawing that turns political races into competitions.

Paula Noonan

Paula Noonan

Paula Noonan owns Colorado Capitol Watch, the state’s premier legislature tracking platform.