AP analysis: Colorado Democrats may benefit from gerrymandering

The Colorado State Capitol, March 11, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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The Colorado State Capitol, March 11, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) capitol hill; denver; colorado; kevinjbeaty; denverite;
The Colorado State Capitol, March 11, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Colorado Republicans cried foul when, after the last U.S. Census in 2010, the state Supreme Court approved a Democratic-drawn map reapportioning the state’s 65 House seats.

GOP leaders, including then-party chair Ryan Call, argued the new map packed Republican legislators into individual districts, diminishing their clout, especially in the metropolitan Denver area.

Democrats went on to capture the Colorado House in the 2012 elections. They have held it ever since.

“Democrats are absolutely benefiting from the current maps, and there’s no question they won’t continue if the process doesn’t change,” Call said. “Republicans have not shown themselves to be good at legal challenges. Hats off to the Democratic litigators.”

Colorado was one of just eight U.S. states with a Democratic advantage in its lower house districts in the 2016 election, according to an Associated Press analysis. The study is based on a formula that compares the statewide average share of each party’s vote in the districts with the statewide percentage of seats it wins.

Calculating partisan advantage will take on new importance when the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether Wisconsin’s state Assembly district maps violate Democratic voters’ constitutional rights. How the court rules could influence congressional redistricting and legislative reapportionment nationwide after the 2020 Census.

In Colorado, Democrats won 57 percent of state House seats in November even though Republicans won 50.4 percent of the statewide vote. Democrats won 37 of 65 House seats, theoretically five more than would be expected based on their statewide vote share.

Roughly 20 percent of seats up for election had just one major party candidate — seven for Republicans and six for Democrats.

The AP excluded state senate chambers from its state data because not all seats were up for election last year.

Democratic Sen. Matt Jones was a House representative appointed to the 2011 legislative reapportionment committee. He insists the panel delivered a record number of competitive House districts where both major parties had close to a 50-50 chance of winning.

“Truly, about a third of the seats are competitive, and that is the best you can do,” Jones said.

Jones argued the courts’ insistence on keeping county boundaries intact interfered with other mandates that included keeping whole so-called “communities of interest.” One example he cited is the scenic Roaring Fork Valley that stretches roughly 40 miles (65 kilometers) from Aspen to Glenwood Springs. It cuts through three counties — and has three House seats, two held by Democrats.

“A favorite thing to do is to cry foul and say ‘gerrymander’ very loud,” Jones said. “We met the criteria the Supreme Court required us to meet.”

Call said he hoped the Wisconsin case could prompt changes in how Colorado goes about drawing its legislative districts — though those changes would require longshot amendments to the state Constitution and to statute.

He’d like to see nonpartisan legislative staff draft initial maps and a supermajority consensus required by redistricting and reapportionment panels. Currently, the 11-person reapportionment panel consists of party leaders in both legislative chambers, three gubernatorial appointees and four by the Supreme Court chief justice. The Constitution allows a majority of six members from a single party.

According to the AP analysis, Colorado’s Republican congressional candidates won 51 percent of the statewide vote in November to maintain their 4-3 margin. The analysis suggests there was a slight Republican advantage in the 2016 election produced by the redistricting in 2011 of the state’s seven seats.