Fair & foul in the battle over congressional redistricting

(Centennial Fellow) Gerrymandering—the conspicuous, irregular manipulating of electoral district boundaries to advantage one political party or candidate—is widely considered a distasteful, if not downright corrupt, practice.

Through gerrymandering, incumbent politicians seek to choose their voters rather than vice versa, packing their legislative or congressional districts with enough like–minded constituents to make re–election almost effortless.

Rather than conform to statutory or geographic boundaries (county lines, city limits, mountain ranges, watersheds), gerrymandering eviscerates those boundaries for the purpose of achieving a specific result on Election Day.

A certain amount of boundary manipulation is inevitable in order to achieve population equality. However, as we’ve seen with the proposed congressional maps drawn by Colorado Democrats, political manipulation is standard operating procedure and historic communities of interest are sacrificed:

  • Western Slope residents needlessly are split between two districts—one that stretches to Boulder, another that borders Kansas and meanders from Pueblo, along the outskirts of Colorado Springs and, most egregiously, into several Denver metro counties.
  • Likewise, the vote of rural Eastern Plains voters is diluted by boundaries that split those counties roughly along Interstate 70.
  • The Democrat stronghold of Denver remains whole, while the Republican fortress in El Paso County is divided.
  • Except for Denver, each of the eight most populous counties in the state are divided among multiple districts. (Drawing a map that leaves five of those counties whole is so easy a third–grader could do it.)

Diluted voting strength is a particularly sensitive issue for rural voters because their communities, for the most part, aren’t growing as rapidly as the Front Range.

Census data sets the target population for each of Colorado’s seven congressional districts at 717,022. Denver metro area counties total almost 2.8 million—nearly enough for four districts. Add El Paso, Pueblo, Larimer and Weld counties and the Front Range accounts for 4.1 million or just shy of six districts.

That leaves just 901,144 in non–metro counties. Western Slope, San Luis Valley and mountain counties tally 659,986, while the Eastern Plains and Arkansas Valley populations number 241,158 people.

Splitting rural voters into two districts is unavoidable. Splitting them into three just to diminish their voting strength is unnecessary and gratuitously insulting.

In recent redistricting cycles, Democrats have endorsed the phony cause of creating politically competitive districts.

However, drawing boundaries for the primary purpose of creating competitive districts is gerrymandering, too. Just as maps drawn to favor Democrats or Republicans arbitrarily divide voters to manipulate election results, maps drawn to achieve “competitiveness” do the same.

Competitive districts are a ruse. Each party wants to tilt these competitive districts to be certain their party has an edge. Even if a truly “toss up” district could be crafted for the 2012 election, that same district will predictably favor one party or the other after an election or two. (Consider Congressional District 7, the crown jewel of competitiveness when it was created in 2002: Republican Bob Beauprez won by 126 votes and was re–elected in 2004. By 2010, Democrat Ed Perlmutter won re–election by almost 22,000 votes against a strong opponent in a watershed Republican year.)

If creating competitive districts is truly the goal, then no boundaries should be sacred. Slice and dice the state into seven districts, each of which could be won either party. That’s statistically possible given that Colorado voters are so evenly divided.

We all know that won’t happen. Incumbents in Congress don’t want to work that hard election after election and neither do all the “wannabe” Congressmen or Congresswomen now serving in the state legislature.

So, It’s time for legislators to stop hiding behind ulterior motives and instead to draw sensible districts that respect Colorado’s geographic, historic and socio–economic interests. Even with that as a starting point, political horse–trading and gamesmanship will necessarily figure into the process.

After all, it’s impossible to take the politics out of an inherently political exercise.


Mark Hillman was a state senator during Colorado’s last redistricting battle, spanning the legislative sessions of 2001, 2002, and 2003, along with two trips through the courts. He is now the Republican national committeeman for Colorado and a Centennial Institute Fellow.

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