GOP's Midnight Gerrymander Is the Big Bang of Colorado Congressional Map-Drawing Fights

When it comes to redrawing Colorado's congressional districts, there's strategeric strategery, which you'd expect, and then there's stratospheric subversion of the rule of law.
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When it comes to redrawing Colorado's congressional districts, there's strategeric strategery, which you'd expect, and then there's stratospheric subversion of the rule of law.

Reporters covering the redistricting process should be sure not to confuse the two. And so far, they've done a good job.

The starting point for confusion at this point could come regarding the GOP bill, HR 1276, introduced last Friday to change a law passed by Democrats last year.

The temptation for a reporter might be to frame this year's GOP bill (introduced by Sen. Ellen Roberts and Rep. J. Paul Brown) as a partisan response to the equally partisan law passed by Democrats last year. But the two are not equally partisan, if you know the history involved, which I'll explain.

Last year's Dem law, introduced by Sen. Weissmann, repealed a 2004 GOP law laying out prioritized criteria that courts should use to map out Colorado's congressional districts, if the Legislature can't agree on a congressional map.

But the 2004 Republican law was directly connected to what's known as the 2003 "midnight gerrymander," which, on balance, was not run-of-the-mill strategeric strategery but stratospheric subversion of rule of law and the spirit of fair elections.

So, to be fair, this year's GOP bill (HR 1276) needs to be described as an outgrowth of the midnight gerrymander. Or at least this perspective should be offered, as it was in recent coverage in the Denver Post, the Colorado Statesman, and the Durango Herald.

Here's the background, based on this and other reporting:

After the last census, when it was time to re-draw congressional districts, Republicans and Democrats in the state Legislature didn't agree on new boundaries, and so District Judge John Coughlin selected one of several maps proposed in 2002. The map he selected was upheld by the Colorado Supreme Court.

Then, in 2003, after an election had occurred, GOP state legislators passed yet another election-map law with new boundaries that could have given the GOP six safe congressional seats in Colorado and just one to the Dems.

This brazen effort became known as the "midnight gerrymander" because GOP legislators rammed their election-mapping bill through the state legislative process during the last three days of the session, bypassing committees and ignoring normal rules.

Ken Salazar was Colorado's Attorney General at the time, and he declared the GOP legislation unconstitutional, but Gov. Bill Owens signed it anyway in May of 2003.

The Colorado Supreme Court threw the "midnight-gerrymander" law out in December of 2003, and restored the congressional map that had originally been approved.

After this major setback, Republicans in the state legislature passed a law in 2004 aimed at forcing the courts to create congressional maps that look essentially identical to those that would have been created by, yup, the midnight gerrymander! They did this by specifying that cities and counties be given top priority among criteria used by a judge to evaluate congressional maps.

So last year, the Dems repealed this law, leaving the courts to use essentially the same criteria that were in place before the midnight gerrymander. The status quo, pre-gerrymander, was returned, in which the courts are asked to follow federal law and weigh other non-prioritized criteria as needed.

This brings us to last Friday, when state Republicans introduced yet another bill (1276) to bring back mapping criteria that would result in midnight-gerrymader-looking congressional districts.

The bottom line for reporters is to be clear that while both Dems and Republicans are pushing for an advantageous congressional map, the current strategery on GOP side has its roots in the midnight gerrymander.

And the story of that stratospheric subversion of rule of law, which could have given the GOP a 6-1 advantage in CO congressional seats, should be explained to public in redistricting coverage, because the gerrymander is sort of like the Big Bang of Colorado's recent redistricting history, setting in motion the elements (laws, bills, map criteria) that are spinning around us today.

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