There are policy-oriented tasks that one looks forward to undertaking, and some that one wants nothing to do with. Federal redistricting in Colorado appears to me to be one of those thankless jobs that no one in their right mind undertakes unless they think that somehow they can gain a partisan advantage. This session, the General Assembly is split, with the Republicans holding the House and the Democrats holding the Senate and the Governor’s office. Back in December, before the session started, legislative leadership charged a committee of five Republicans and five Democrats with drawing up new districts.
The committee held hearings around the state. A couple of weeks ago, they released two different sets of candidate maps, one set drawn up by the Democrats and one set by the Republicans. Neither set bore any real resemblance to the other, and it appears now that the committee will quietly expire without submitting a redistricting bill. Expectations are that next week the Democrats will introduce a redistricting bill in the Senate, the Republicans will introduce a different bill in the House, no compromise will happen, and the whole issue will be tossed into the lap of the Denver district court. The same court drew the district boundaries back in 2001, as well.
The problem for the court, and the reason I wouldn’t want to have to draw the new lines, is that like its budget, Colorado’s legislators and voters have over-constrained the problem. There are statutes and court orders that specify factors that can be considered, and factors that must not be considered, in drawing the lines. Three of these seem to be to be particularly troublesome: (1) in effect, there must be an “Eastern Plains” district; (2) similarly, there must be a “Western Slope” district; and (3) the city of Denver must be included in a single district, unless its population has grown too large.
The Eastern Plains and Western Slope requirements are attempts to preserve a voice for Colorado’s rural areas. Distinct voices are presumably required because of the substantial differences in the two areas. Why Denver must fit within a single district – and other cities are not granted the same privilege or shackle – is somewhat less clear. Given that Denver has long been a solidly liberal Democrat stronghold, and is the largest city in the state, one suspects that the purpose was to avoid creating two safely liberal districts, each dominated by half of Denver.
Population patterns have steadily changed the distribution of people in the state. In particular, the lion’s share of Colorado’s population growth has occurred in the Front Range counties lying between the Rockies and the rural Plains counties to the east. The following table shows how the growth between 2000 and 2010 was distributed. Only one of the 12 counties with the largest growth – Mesa County, on the Western Slope – is outside of the Front Range. Overall, 86 percent of the total growth occurred in the 11 Front Range counties.
The target population per Congressional district is now 718,457. The portion of Colorado outside of the Front Range totals 911,187: enough for one district, but certainly not two. Those 900 thousand also include the San Luis Valley counties in the south and the mountain resort counties in the center of the state. The Western Slope and the Eastern Plains, then, must be tacked on to one or more of the Front Range districts (or a portion of the Front Range tacked on to the rural areas, depending on your perspective).
It is increasingly difficult to meet the statutory obligations and not upset some people. Pueblo, solidly Democratic, resents being attached to the Western Slope and the San Luis Valley – Pueblo and Mesa counties offset one another, and the remaining, mostly conservative, rural areas determine the outcome. Many Eastern Plains counties are actually losing population; paired with growing Larimer and Weld counties, that rural voice is already on the verge of disappearing. In order to retain his seat, Congressman Gardner from Yuma will need to convince the voters of Fort Collins and Greeley that he can represent their urban interests if and when those conflict with the interests of his much smaller rural constituency.
Colorado can be rightfully proud of its rural heritage. On the other hand, according to census Bureau population figures, Colorado is the 14th least rural state in the country, slightly more rural overall than New York and Maryland, but less rural than Delaware and Ohio. Assuming that decades-long trends continue, perhaps as early as 2020, and almost certainly by 2030, the only way to preserve an actual rural representation in Colorado’s Congressional delegation will be to combine almost everything outside of the Front Range into a single rural district.
And that’s why I’m glad that I’m not the one stuck with the job of drawing the new district lines for Colorado. The current constraints represent an outdated historical perspective: Denver as the dominant population presence, and meaningful rural populations in both the East and the West. El Paso County has passed Denver in population, Arapahoe County will very likely pass Denver in the next census, and the combination of Larimer and Weld Counties may also pass Denver by 2020 as well. The rural areas of the state are shrinking in size relative to the Front Range, more so in the East than in the West. I happen to think redistricting ought to reflect the future direction of the state, not its past.
 Some might argue against including Weld County as part of the Front Range. Weld’s population is dominated by Greeley, and I don’t want to split the Fort Collins / Loveland / Greeley area, where boundaries are going to grow increasingly blurred. Boulder, Jefferson and Broomfield Counties are lumped together because Broomfield County was created from parts of four counties after the 2000 census, and the bulk of its population was drawn from areas that were originally in either Boulder or Jefferson.