Democrats backed a commission to draw fair House lines in Colorado. Now they worry they gave up their power.

2020 election
Sources: Washington Post analysis, Decision Desk HQ, TIGER/Line, Colorado Independent Redistricting Commissions and LULAC.

An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to Curtis Hubbard as Craig Hubbard. This version has been corrected.

When Colorado Democrats joined the state’s Republicans to support an independent commission to redraw political district lines, many of them celebrated it as a rare bipartisan victory in the name of fairness and good governance.

But now that the first-time commission has finished its work, the result is what some other Democrats had feared: a map that they say is overly generous to Republicans. Rather than adding an additional Democratic seat — which many leaders in that party argue is justified based on an influx of left-leaning voters and traditionally pro-Democratic Latinos — the commission has carved out a new, competitive district while largely preserving the current districts held by four Democrats and three Republicans.

“I’m distraught by it all because in many ways it was worse than I anticipated,” said Rick Ridder, a longtime Democratic consultant who was among those raising alarm three years ago about giving map drawing over to a commission. “This was a bad idea from a long term perspective; the trends were moving very significantly on our behalf. Under the mantra of fairness, Democrats conceded the power for the coming decade.”

The congressional map is currently under a required review by the state Supreme Court, which has until Nov. 1 to approve the map or return it to the commission for changes. A raft of liberal and pro-Democratic groups have joined the legal fray to oppose the plan, underscoring the extent to which even a single seat could be decisive in the Democrats’ quest next year to retain their razor-thin majority in the U.S. House.

The new 8th District, designed to stretch from the more liberal northern Denver suburbs to conservative Greeley, is 40 percent Hispanic, but gives Democrats only a 1.3 percentage point advantage based on eight elections. President Donald Trump would have narrowly won the district in 2016, but lost it in 2020.

Latino advocacy groups have filed briefs arguing the commission’s new lines dilute their vote by swapping suburban Denver voters for rural conservative ones to make the district more competitive, which they say is prohibited under the 2018 constitutional amendment that formed the commission. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee also filed a brief, asserting that the process was rushed and “infused with last-minute confusion.”

“We’re the fastest growing group in Colorado, the way they redistricted, it’s watering down the Latino vote. I don’t know if it was done on purpose, but it looks like they gave up a lot of inroads that the Latino community had made in Colorado,” said Sonny Subia, Colorado state director for the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).

A spokeswoman for the commission said members were not available to comment, citing the court’s review. The commission’s attorneys in their brief challenged the opposition’s interpretation, saying placing race above all other redistricting criteria would violate the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause. They also contend that the new 8th District “contains the highest percentage of Hispanic voters in a district in Colorado history.”

Curtis Hubbard, a Democratic consultant, said he doesn’t regret helping shepherd the negotiations over the ballot measures that created commissions to draw congressional and legislative maps.

“You can’t be for voting rights or fairness on the one hand and not for it on the other,” he said. “It may not be the map of my dreams, but it’s a fair map that was done in an open process, and it should be a model. It’s unfortunate states out there still play by the old rules to benefit partisan interests rather than their voters.”

Across the country, Democrats’ tenuous hold on the House majority has squeezed the party between deep-seated democratic ideals and raw partisan gamesmanship to stay in power.

Republicans control more state governments than Democrats, and they’ve wielded that power to gerrymander districts to their advantage in states like Texas and Ohio, largely shunning calls for independent commissions to take over redistricting. Yet in places like Colorado where Democratic power is growing, Republicans were part of the push to give commissions control instead of their opponents.

[Who controls redistricting in your state? Our FAQ answers that and other questions.]

Democrats, scarred by their redistricting losses in 2011, spent the past decade advocating commissions as the fairer way to draw new lines. Now they’re reconsidering, anxious that maps drawn by commissions could damage their chances of holding the House. (Democrats have gerrymandered Illinois to their advantage and are eyeing New York as another place to pick up seats.)

“There’s an interesting pattern where sometimes you’ll have GOP groups advocating for some kind of good government reform, that happened in Colorado, and there’s always some number of Democratic reformers who will join them in supporting that,” said Seth Masket, director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. “I don’t think it works the same way [the other way] around. There are Democrats in some places who would favor an independent commission, but there’s not the same group of Republican good government types who want to join them in that.”

A dynamic similar to Colorado’s occurred in Virginia, where voters in 2020 approved a ballot initiative to create an independent commission. It was advanced by Republicans, but divided Democrats, who had newly won majorities in the state legislature and held the governorship.

Virginia’s commission has been mired in conflict and already punted the drawing of its legislative maps to the state Supreme Court, a conservative-leaning bench that Democrats fear will draw lines in Republicans’ favor. It’s likely to do the same with the congressional map.

“Here we are, one of the two states, us and Virginia, and we’re giving our power away,” said a former high-ranking Colorado Democratic legislative aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about opposition to the commission within the party. “This is not a swing state, that’s a joke. Pretending as if it is, or creating laws that overcorrect for it, doesn’t make a fair process, it gives the minority an advantage.”

The 2018 ballot initiative to create a redistricting commission in Colorado came after several years of negotiations between the parties.

Frank McNulty, once the Republican speaker of the state Assembly, helped spearhead the effort after he left office in 2015. He and other Republicans started “End Gerrymandering Now” to push the plan. Colorado Democrats found themselves cornered: Join the Republicans or be seen as obstructing the kind of pro-democracy stand they often had embraced.

The effort, though bipartisan, received more than half of its money in 2016 from a super PAC that doesn’t disclose its donors and was created by former Republican National Committee officials. Citizens for a Sound Government donated $161,000 to the cause, according to the Colorado campaign finance database.

The same year the commissions were overwhelmingly approved, voters gave Democrats a huge mandate over state government, handing them the governorship, a supermajority in the state Assembly and a new majority in the state Senate.

That dominance has continued as new residents, many of them millennials and Latinos who tend to vote Democratic, moved to the state. In 2020, President Biden won Colorado by 13.5 percentage points.

The commission drawing House lines is composed of four Democrats, four Republicans and four without party affiliation. They are all citizens who applied for the role; none was allowed to be a politician, lobbyist or have an official connection with a political party. The applicant pool was whittled down through a complex, multistep process that ultimately resulted in a panel of judges choosing six commissioners and the other half randomly selected by a bingo ball machine.

As required by law, the commissioners held dozens of public hearings across the state from March through August while nonpartisan staff collected data to draw draft maps. After a contentious debate that went late into the night on Sept. 28, the commission voted 11 to 1 just before midnight on a final map. The lone dissenter, a Democrat, opposed it over concerns about Latino representation.

Its proceedings weren’t without drama. At its first meeting in April, the members voted to remove their newly chosen chairman over comments he made questioning the legitimacy of the 2020 election. In August, a GOP state lawmaker was recorded coaching citizens on how to advocate for Republican interests to the redistricting committee.

That same month, a Democrat filed a formal complaint against McNulty and other Republicans, accusing them of lobbying the commissioners without registering to do so. McNulty denied he lobbied the board. The Colorado secretary of state referred the case to a state administrative law judge to review whether the Republicans violated lobbying disclosure rules.

Ultimately, what brought to a head the anger among Democrats and their allies was the new map’s seeming defiance of the party’s gains in the state. Among the three Republican incumbents it protected was conservative firebrand Rep. Lauren Boebert (R), whose seat was made safer and whose most viable Democratic challenger was shifted into another district. The only incumbent moved to a less favorable seat was a Democrat, Rep. Ed Perlmutter, who shifted from one that Biden won by 22 points to one he won by 14.

Ire over the treatment of Latino voters has focused on the new 8th District — a result of the state’s surging population growth.

LULAC and other groups contend that those who drew the map wrongly prioritized creating a competitive district over other factors, like giving minorities a chance to elect a candidate of their choice.

Democrats say that if they’d drawn the map this year they could have guaranteed themselves at least five safe seats, and maybe a sixth. That, they argue, would have been more in line with the state’s recent voting patterns than the four Democratic seats included in the map.

Michael Stratton, a veteran Colorado Democratic consultant, said he would have preferred that outcome, but conceded “the commission did what it was charged to do by the people.”

“Often times Democrats in this kind of situation are prone to tie one hand behind their back, and I think this was one of those situations,” he said.

McNulty said that offsetting Democrats’ increasing influence in the state “didn’t have anything to do with” the commission campaign and pointed to the support it gained from Democratic leaders, including Mark Ferrandino, the Democrat who succeeded him as speaker.

“To say this was a purely political move to try and save some power, it just doesn’t make sense,” McNulty said.

Ferrandino said that he understood the Democrats who cautioned him against working with McNulty, but said he’d long believed partisan gerrymandering was hurting democracy. He also said he believed the commission would be better crafted with his input rather than letting Republicans draft it alone.

“If we knew Colorado would continue to be more and more blue, I can see the argument, but I still fundamentally believe we should ensure it’s a fair process in every jurisdiction across the country,” he said.

Amanda Gonzalez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, a group that helped draft the amendments that created the independent commission, also filed a brief opposing the new congressional map on the grounds it reduced Latinos’ electoral influence and doesn’t accurately reflect the state.

Still, Gonzalez said she believes the commission is “the most fair and transparent way of creating maps.”

“At the end of the day all Coloradans want is a process they can trust, they want to understand what is going on … this independent commission process got us closer to that,” she said.

Harry Stevens contributed to this report.

Colby Itkowitz is a national politics reporter for The Washington Post. She joined the Post in March 2014. Before coming to the Post, Colby was the D.C. correspondent for The (Allentown) Morning Call and transportation policy reporter at Congressional Quarterly.
Adrián Blanco Ramos is a graphic reporter in the graphics department at The Washington Post. He previously worked at Spanish newspaper El Confidencial focusing on data visualization, data analysis and investigative journalism. He participated in the International Consortium of Investigative Journalist’s Paradise Papers investigation.