Colorado's Democratic-run state House and Republican-majority state Senate have unanimously voted to refer two state constitutional amendments to the ballot this November that would create independent redistricting commissions to handle congressional and state legislative redistricting following the 2020 census. Colorado also had a divided government during the previous round of redistricting, but Democrats’ control of the state Supreme Court allowed them to pass modest gerrymanders of the state legislature because they were able to appoint a majority to the existing bipartisan commission, which these new commissions would replace.
There are two separate measures creating two separate commissions because Colorado's constitution limits the number of subjects a single ballot measure can address. The amendments would also have to attain at least 55 percent support to pass, thanks to a 2016 ballot initiative that imposed a new supermajority requirement.
Under these proposals, a panel of three retired appellate judges—one from each major party and one who is unaffiliated—would play a key role in randomly selecting commissioners from a pool of applicants. Democrats, Republicans, and independents would each have four members on the commission, and it would take two votes from each bloc to pass a map. The four legislative party leaders would not get to handpick any of the commission’s members, although they do get to select a pool of 10 applicants each to submit to the panel of judges for random selection. Consequently, this arrangement can reasonably be considered independent.
Any adopted maps would also have to follow several strict criteria, which the commission lists as: following federal law; preserving communities of interest (which the amendments extensively define); keeping cities and counties whole; maximizing compactness; maximizing the number of politically competitive districts; banning the intentional favoring or disfavoring of a party or candidate; and preventing the dilution of the electoral strength of voters belonging to a racial or ethnic minority.
Nonpartisan legislative staff would assist commissioners by preparing preliminary maps, but commissioners could direct them to make changes as they see fit. If the commission passes a map, the state Supreme Court would review it to determine whether it faithfully complies with the above criteria. If commissioners fail to pass a map, the commission staff would be directed to submit their final plan to the court, which would then review it for compliance with the criteria above.
All told, this commission arrangement is a vast improvement over a status quo that allows for gerrymandering. While Colorado's existing congressional map was drawn by a court and its legislative maps only have a slight Democratic lean, Democrats could hold unified control of state government after the 2020 census, which would allow them to gerrymander more aggressively. Consequently, if faithfully implemented, these commissions could ultimately draw fair maps where the party with the most votes is also likely to win the most seats.