Redistricting: New Boundaries of Politics?
By T. R.
July 2, 2003
DENVER -- The bill was introduced on a Monday, passed
on Wednesday and signed into law on Friday. There was minimal debate
and no time for public comment. Still, Colorado statute SB-352 could
be a political milestone: the first successful application of a new
tactic being pushed by Republican leaders in Washington.
The Colorado law redraws the borders of all of the
state's congressional districts -- just two years after the
redistricting that followed the 2000 Census. The sole purpose, as
leaders of the Republican-controlled legislature confirm, was to
strengthen the party's majority in the state's congressional
A similar effort at re-redistricting failed in May in
Texas, when Democratic legislators decamped to Oklahoma, making a
quorum impossible in the state House of Representatives. But on
Monday, Texas Republicans started to try again; Gov. Rick Perry (R)
has called a special session to redraw that state's 2001
congressional map. The session is to run for 30 days, making it
harder for Democrats to thwart action.
If Texas this time follows the Colorado model,
Democrats have warned that they might retaliate, redrawing
congressional district maps to strengthen their party in New Mexico
and Oklahoma, where Democrats control both the legislature and the
"This is a political strategy we haven't seen before,"
said Tim Storey, redistricting analyst for the National Conference
of State Legislatures. "People who study this area can't find any
case in the last 100 years of mid-decade redistricting without a
Colorado's new congressional map, passed on straight
party-line votes in the last half-hour before the legislature
adjourned May 7, has been dubbed the "midnight gerrymander." GOP
legislators have been roundly condemned in the local media for
violating the state's generally congenial political traditions.
"Children, children, what do you think this is? New Jersey?"
complained Denver Post political columnist Fred Brown.
GOP leaders are unapologetic.
"Nonpartisanship is not an option," state Senate
President John Andrews wrote in a newspaper column responding to
critics. "There are only two kinds of Congress to choose from: one
where . . . Republicans hold the majority, or one where . . .
Republicans won five of the state's seven House seats
in the 2002 election. But Andrews contended that the GOP seats had
to be made safer, particularly in the new suburban Denver district
and in the sprawling district that makes up the western half of the
state. "The Democrats' failure to win either seat in 2002 was small
comfort," Andrews said. "The numbers were going to favor them in
"Redistricting is almost always a corrupt business,"
notes Robert Richie, executive director of the Takoma Park-based
Center for Voting and Democracy. "But what just happened in Colorado
is really disgusting, because what they had before was one of the
best districts in the country in terms of being responsive to the
In an era in which most congressional districts are
drawn to guarantee safe seats for one party or the other, Colorado
bucked the trend after the 2000 Census. The state's new 7th
Congressional District was designed to be a political tossup, with
one-third of the voters Republican, one-third Democratic and
Sure enough, the suburban Denver district produced the
closest House race in the nation last fall. After several recounts,
Republican Bob Beauprez won the seat by 122 votes out of 162,938
For Republican leaders, that margin was too close,
particularly with Democrat Mike Feeley likely to run again in 2004.
The legislature's new map gives Beauprez a safe seat, with the most
Democratic parts of the 7th Congressional District moved to other
For good measure, Feeley's home was redistricted out
of the district, making it nearly impossible for him to challenge
Beauprez next year. Beyond the 7th Congressional District, the new
Colorado map involves many familiar features of the gerrymandering
Heavily Hispanic Pueblo County has been divided down
the middle, so its traditionally Democratic vote will be diluted
within two strong Republican districts.
The new map removes the Democrats' stronghold of Aspen
from the western-slope district, making that district much safer for
Aspen's vote has been shifted into a K-shaped district
centered on the university town of Boulder -- about a five-hour
drive from Aspen -- so that the two Democratic cities will be in the
Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar, a Democrat, has
challenged the re-redistricting in the state's Supreme Court, saying
the state constitution authorizes only one districting plan per
decade. A group of Democratic voters has filed a second challenge to
the GOP measure in a lower state court.
"I wouldn't be surprised if this case goes to the U.S.
Supreme Court," said David Fine, the Denver attorney representing
the plaintiffs. "Somebody has to decide whether it is legal to
redistrict without a new census requiring it."
The trend to create safe congressional districts is a
major reason that House incumbents almost never lose and that
retiring members are almost always succeeded by members of the same
In the 2002 election, 38 of the 435 House races were
considered competitive, with margins of victory less than 10
percentage points. Only four House members lost their seats to
challengers in 2002; four others were beaten by fellow incumbents.