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Is Gerrymandering Really a Problem in Colorado?

In Colorado, two ballot initiatives in the upcoming election would change the process by which the state draws up its districts. But would such reform really change anything?
Allyson Webb watches her mother, Angela Webb vote at the Gilpin County Community Center on November 2nd, 2010, outside of Central City, Colorado.

We're just a few years away from the next round of redistricting, and several states are starting to rethink how best to determine district lines. In Colorado in particular, two ballot initiatives in the upcoming election would change the process by which the state draws up its districts. But would such reform really change anything?

The two initiatives on Colorado's ballot, Amendments Y and Z, would create independent redistricting commissions for congressional and state legislative districts, respectively. These commissions would consist of 12 members each with specific partisan affiliations—four Democrats, four Republicans, and four unaffiliated voters. For a plan to pass, it would need to earn the approval of eight members of the commission, including at least two unaffiliated voters. (Currently, the state legislature redraws the congressional districts, while a bipartisan commission draws up the lines for the legislature.) This independent commission approach is similar to that used in California.

California's experiences with its redistricting commission have been relatively positive. As Public Policy Institute of California researcher Eric McGhee notes, California's congressional districts have become somewhat more competitive since the state adopted the commission, and there has been only a minimal advantage for one party.

But might Colorado be chasing a problem that doesn't exist? Electoral abuse doesn't seem to plague Colorado like it does California. Colorado has just about the proper party split of its congressional districts based on its statewide voting. The "efficiency gap," a calculation developed by McGhee and Nick Stephanopoulos to determine whether one party has more "wasted" votes than another, barely registers as an issue in Colorado's congressional elections. It's not much of a problem in state house elections, either, where there was about a 6 percent efficiency gap against Republicans in 2016 (below the critical threshold of 8 percent). This is not to say that Colorado's current redistricting system can't be abused by one party over another. It's just that, at least for now, that doesn't appear to be happening in any egregious way.

And while some claim the redistricting process can induce a more polarized atmosphere, research doesn't bear out that argument. (In fact, redistricting can sometimes decrease local polarization.) What's more, studies suggest that polarization has increased in most states regardless of whether legislators, judges, or commissions are drawing the districts. Colorado is a deeply polarized state—it quite possibly has the most polarized legislature in the nation—but chances are changing how its districts are drawn won't affect that very much.

Nonetheless, what's the harm in moving to an independent commission anyway? Even if the current system isn't that bad, might the new one be better? It's certainly possible. Many of the objections here are more normative and theoretical.

Given polling forecasts and overall demographic trends, that is, Democrats look to be in good shape in Colorado for 2018, and there's a good chance they'll control the governor's office and both chambers of the state legislature after 2020, when the next redistricting comes around. That would put the Democrats in a good position to control what districts look like for the decade to come. If this initiative passes, that partisan opportunity goes away. Chances are, your feelings about that depend a good deal on your party identification.

More generally, just who should be drawing our legislative districts? It's a complex governmental process that requires research and input from a great many sources, including voters and activists across the state. Arguably, this is precisely the kind of thing we hire legislators to do, and shirking an important role because it's controversial is not a terribly responsible approach to governing.

That said, a substantial percentage of the population sees, rightly or wrongly, redistricting as a source of many political ills, and views the transfer of that power to a politically balanced and independent commission as a blow against corruption. There's not much evidence that this system actually is corrupt, of course. But there's also likely no harm in changing it, and if it would give Coloradans more confidence in their political system, perhaps some good may come of it.