Hispanic population may impact new CO districts
The Associated Press
DENVER – Colorado’s growing Hispanic population might influence how new state legislative districts are drawn this year, but whether that leads to districts dominated by Latinos is an open question.
Hispanic population growth – 41 percent since 2000 – is not concentrated along the Front Range, a traditional growth area, according to new data from the Census Bureau. Hispanics also moved over the past decade to the Western Slope in search of jobs in mining and the service industry.
A panel working on the once-a-decade process of redrawing House and Senate districts to account for population changes began its work this month. The federal Voting Rights Act mandates it account for the state’s current ethnic makeup and avoid diluting minority voting power. And while Colorado’s process of redrawing state districts is not historically as partisan as congressional redistricting, it can lead to disputes over whether minorities are appropriately represented.
Case in point: The state was sued following the 1990 census over worries that the Hispanic vote in the southern San Luis Valley, the most Latino part of Colorado, was being diluted by white voters in one district. The lawsuit produced a district with a majority of Hispanic voters. That district, known as a majority-minority district, is represented by Democratic Rep. Edward Vigil, one of a handful of Hispanic lawmakers in the Colorado Legislature.
But majority-minority districts can have political drawbacks, both for Hispanics and the Democrats they typically vote for. That’s because instead of exerting their power throughout various districts, majority-minority districts can potentially confine an ethnic group’s influence to a few places. Such districts also don’t guarantee that more Hispanic lawmakers get elected.
Jim Merlino, a Democratic political strategist from Broomfield, said it’s more beneficial to have minority voters spread throughout districts where they make up a significant part of the electorate, but not a majority.
“I think that’s the best way to go, with the important caveat that you don’t dilute the voting power of any one ethnic group,” Merlino said.
The fact that Hispanics now constitute 1 million of Colorado’s 5 million residents is not lost on members of the reapportionment panel.
“It undoubtedly is going to have a pretty significant impact on how we draw some districts,” said Democratic Sen. Morgan Carroll of Aurora.
Carroll said it’s possible there will be more majority-minority districts this time around, or at least districts where Hispanics can sway elections if they flex their muscle.
The catch is finding places with enough Hispanics.
“There aren’t that many areas of the state where you can draw a majority-minority district,” said Jeremiah Barry, a legislative attorney working with the reapportionment commission.
“That’s one of the things we’re charged to do but it’s difficult to do, given that minorities are spreading out more in the general society,” said Bob Loevy, a political science professor at Colorado College who serves on the panel. Loevy said that while Hispanics in Colorado traditionally moved to Denver, they’re now also spreading into the suburbs.
And then there’s the Western Slope. From 2000 to 2010, counties that saw the largest influx of Hispanics included Rio Blanco, Garfield and Mesa – places that had not seen big increases in Latino residents before.
The reapportionment commission will also have a big impact on whether Republicans or Democrats control the Legislature.
Currently, Democrats have a five-vote advantage in the Senate, and Republicans control the House by one vote. Places like Douglas County, which are traditionally Republican, are experiencing explosive population growth that could lead to an extra Douglas County seat in the House, Barry said.
Denver, which is more Democratic, may lose a seat, Barry said.
The commission has 11 members – five Democrats, five Republicans, and one unaffiliated – and not all of them are elected officials. They’re appointed by the governor, party leaders and a judge.
The target size for a House district is 77,372 residents. For the Senate it’s 143,691. To redraw the districts, commissioners are required to follow a set of rules, including keeping communities of interest together and keeping cities and towns whole.
Given the high political stakes of congressional redistricting, the Legislature this year failed to draw a new map, and that process will now be settled in court. For the state-level reapportionment commission, that step is already built into the process. The panel must submit its maps to the state Supreme Court for review in October.
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