• Stephanie Vigil

#CoLeg Back in Session & Adventures in Redistricting

There is a lot of good work to be done under the golden dome now that the #CoLeg is back in session, and I’d like to give another bump to one of my side projects: volunteering for Colorado Legislation Trackers. This website is an excellent resource for, well, tracking legislation as it moves through the Colorado General Assembly. It will help you streamline efforts to reach out to committee members and connect with your own legislators on bills that are especially important to you.

You can also follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

This is an all-volunteer project, not on behalf of any elected official, candidate, party, or organization. Just a handful of activists helping you navigate the process and be a more engaged citizen.

In the meantime, there's one bill in particular that I'd like to dig into today: a bill to end the gerrymandering of County Commission districts, sponsored by Rep. Chris Kennedy.

You can imagine that the current board (100% Republican, just like every board that have come before them for the last 48 years) is not happy about this development. They spent a good forty minutes of last week’s public meeting, along with Republican County Clerk and Recorder Chuck Broerman and their strategic initiatives officer Brandon Wilson, lambasting the bill (the segment is from 00:35:45 to about 01:06:00 if you care to watch). The key points were:

  1. That the citizens of El Paso already choose our own commissioners, and now big government Democrats in Boulder and Denver are trying to disenfranchise us.

  2. That they believe themselves to be doing a very good job of drawing and maintaining fair districts that preserve communities of interest, familiar boundaries, etc.

  3. “Unfunded mandate!!!”

Let’s take these one at a time:

1. No we don’t. At its most conservative moments, El Paso County does not even vote 80% Republican, let alone 100%, and yet the BoCC has been five out of five Republicans for nearly fifty years. No reasonable person can possibly think this is unrelated to the fact that the board draws their own boundaries, and in so doing, chooses the voters they'd like to have in each district to make sure all five are safe Republican seats. We can also be sure that voters in El Paso County don't approve of politicians choosing their voters, as we voted 72% for Amendments Y and Z in 2018, slightly above the statewide average, to form independent commissions for Congressional and state legislative redistricting.

It takes some serious mental gymnastics to think that we'd dislike being scammed by political grifters when it comes to Congressional and state districts, but be just fine with it at a county level.

Anyone with even a basic understanding of the political field in El Paso County knows where the highest concentrations of Democratic voters live: downtown, Westside, Manitou Springs, South and Southeast Colorado Springs. The simplest proof, if you’re not in the know, is that state house districts 18 and 17 are safe or relatively safe Democratic seats, as well as state senate district 11. (This, by the way, gets Democrats 25% of the county's delegation to the state, far less than how the total county votes.) Even the more left-leaning members of Colorado Springs City Council, though it's officially non-partisan, are in districts 3 and 4, which largely overlap with those blue districts.

This ain't rocket surgery, is what I'm saying. This all-Republican board knows full well where they do and do not have likely voters, and draw accordingly. Simply put, El Paso County voters are already disenfranchised under the status quo. If you'd like to be on the Board of Commissioners, you need only gain the approval of the Republican party establishment.

2. This is grossly disingenuous. For one, the claim rests on the notion that the average El Paso County resident knows and likes their commissioner, or even knows that they have one, and draws a sense of identity and attachment to the community based on this familiarity. This claim is easily dismissed:

"Commissioner who?"

The best part is, they conducted this poll themselves. It was taxpayer funded, ironically enough lumped in with a TABOR question, and then they concealed the results until a local activist group exposed it via a CORA request. The majority of voters in El Paso County do not know who any of these people are, including their own commissioner. The rate of overall familiarity starts with the chair at the time (so, the one who’s most quoted in the news), and the two members whose spouses are well known Republican operatives, and it dwindles down from there.

Let’s circle back to this idea that “communities of interest” are already being preserved. We’re all familiar with the Tri-lakes Area, yes? Monument, Palmer Lake, and Woodmoor? The region is serviced by a shared school district, a shared fire department, a shared chamber of commerce, and so on. One might say the region counts as a community, based on all this shared interest. Here’s how they’re split up for county commission districts:

In the upper left, you'll see precincts 302 (Palmer Lake) and 304 (just the Western edge of Monument) drawn away from the rest of the Tri-lakes Area and included in County Commission 3, the Western district.

Now why would that be? Because the residents of Western Monument have more shared interest with the residents of Westside Colorado Springs and Manitou than they do with the rest of their own town? Or because Electra Johnson got a little too close to winning County Commission 3 in 2016 and they needed to dilute the Democratic vote?

Their own justification was that population shifts necessitated adding some turf to CC3. But they could have easily accomplished this by unifying Patty Jewett, a clearly defined neighborhood in central Colorado Springs which was already, and remains, also divided by a commission boundary line. If you haven't yet guessed -- yes, Patty Jewett is a Dem-leaning neighborhood, which would have made the district even more winnable for a Democrat, and even one seat less than total unanimous control, for whatever reason, does not work for them.

You have to wonder why a party won't settle for being the majority and needs nothing less than unchecked, single-party rule. Political competition is good for the public interest, but this board won't tolerate it. Why not? One aspect of this redistricting bill bill is that the process for drawing new lines must include an effort to "maximize the number of politically competitive districts," and can be rejected by the judiciary if it doesn't.

3. "But like, unfunded mandate, man!" is their favorite rebuttal to anything they can't find a better reason to oppose. To be perfectly clear, counties are subdivisions of state government and Commissioners are elected to serve as the administrative arm of that government. In fact, the only power they have is that which is granted to them by the Colorado General Assembly. Sometimes those marching orders will conveniently not require funds; sometimes they will. To be chronically unprepared to spend money on the public interest is no kind of governing strategy. Any board of Commissioners with the will to do their job will be prepared to find money in the budget as needed, so as to fulfill the will of the people.

You see, unlike at Centennial Hall, the composition of our legislature actually reflects the will of the voters. Of course, when you wield illegitimate unanimous control, it starts to go to your head, and you might start thinking that you don't actually have to do anything outside of the agenda of your party. What are the people going to do about it? Vote you out? You have four years between each attempt to tweak the boundaries of your own district and protect your power.

Time's up for this nonsense. We've told ourselves a story about El Paso County and Colorado Springs that simply isn't true -- that it's too deep red a county for Democrats to win anything and we shouldn't even try. That's their story. Let's start telling ours, and let's begin with a level playing field that requires actual voter approval to hold majorities in governing bodies.

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