“Everybody here knows how important drawing lines matter: when we would go on family vacations and my brother and I would get in the backseat of the car, we would draw an imaginary line down the backseat. That line mattered and all the way to Alabama,” Montrose resident Phoebe Benziger said at a public committee to discuss the set of proposed maps revising congressional districts.
Benzinger was one of more than 30 citizens who testified at the Ute Indian Museum on July 30 about the set of proposed maps that will set the boundaries of legislative districts at the state and national level for the next 10 years.
At a public meeting to solicit feedback for proposed maps, the independent commissioners from all around the state heard feedback from citizens around Montrose with feedback on water, splitting counties, agricultural representation and competitiveness.
Every 10 years since 1790, the Census Bureau has taken count of everyone in the United States. These numbers are vitally important to keep track of a changing population and determine representation at the federal, state and local levels.
Because of the rapid growth in Colorado over the past 10 years, the state is picking up a new congressional seat. Also, population shifts within the state necessitate decennial changes to the maps for both sides of the Colorado General Assembly.
Two nonpartisan commissions — one for Congress, the other for both state chambers — have been traveling the state to hear from different residents about the maps.
In previous years, the contentious process of redistricting has been overshadowed by concerns of partisan gerrymandering. Colorado is one of the first states in the country to attempt to depoliticize the process: voters approved new amendments to the constitution in 2018 that created non-partisan redistricting commissions to draw new maps.
Both commissions, one for the congressional map for representation in Washington, and the other for both State House and Senate maps for representation in Denver, have 12 people from all areas of the state. An equal number of members are registered Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated.
As now defined in the state constitution, the commissioners need to balance a variety of factors to ensure that the districts are drawn fairly. The top criteria are equal population, compliance with the 1965 Voting Rights Act and geographical consciousness. Other priorities include preserving communities of interest, a compact shape and maximizing political competitiveness.
The current boundaries of Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, represented by Republican Lauren Boebert since January 2021, extend over much of the Western Slope and as far east as Pueblo County. In the proposed map released in June, Pueblo, as well as the counties that comprise the San Luis Valley, are moved to the 4th Congressional district that includes most of the Eastern Plains.
Many commenters urged the commission to add back the San Luis Valley to the 3rd Congressional District and drop Park, Teller and Fremont counties, located directly west of Colorado Springs. Dea Jacobson suggested that the trio of counties have more in common with the Front Range than the western part of the state.
Although the San Luis Valley is east of the continental divide, Bob Nicholson, a former member of the Montrose city council, said that the valley has more in common with the western half of the state than the eastern half in terms of economic issues: both are heavily based on tourism and agriculture.
Dan Chancellor, who ran a local business in Placerville for decades, also said that the management of tourist-based economies need unified representation in Congress.
“As in all resort communities in Colorado, the federal management of the surrounding public lands is absolutely critical to their vital economic vitality,” Chancellor said. “The unique challenges of tourist-based economies demand a unified voice in Washington.”
Another one of the biggest complaints from speakers was the competitiveness of the district, which jumps from a 6-point Republican advantage to an 11-point advantage.
Jacobson argued that a non-competitive district could incite voter apathy.
“I’m concerned that citizens won’t believe their vote matters, since the outcome for one party or another is a foregone conclusion,” Jacobson said. “It encourages the feeling that the system is rigged in favor of one party or another.”
Olathe farmer John Harold, who runs the Tuxedo Corn Company, said that the commission needs to figure out a way for the state to have competitive races “because our democracy depends on it.”
“You need to make the people that want to represent those districts go to work, not go to a primary and say, ‘Elect me, I’m a Republican, or I’m a Democrat, and therefore that’s the end of it. Now, I can go out and get on national television and make an ass out of myself.’”
The Colorado General Assembly is composed of 100 legislators, 65 in the House and 35 in the Senate. The state-level maps are also redrawn every 10 years to account for population changes within the state.
For the state level-maps, many of the commentators shared concerns about two nearby counties: Montezuma and Delta.
In the Colorado House of Representatives, the current 58th district comprises Montrose, San Miguel, Dolores and Montezuma counties.
In the proposed new map, the district is renamed the 53rd. Ouray, Hinsdale, San Juan and a portion of southern Delta county are added to the map, but a portion of Montezuma County, which includes the city of Cortez, is folded into the neighboring district that contains La Plata and Archuleta counties.
Many of the commenters addressing the commission argued that all of Montezuma county should be in the same district as Montrose because of the importance of agriculture and similar economic characteristics.
Linda Gann, a longtime Montrose resident who works in health care and education, said that both places face the same challenges of economic disparities in schools, with over half of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch.
Many Delta County residents voiced their concerns about how the county is split in both maps. David Whittelsey, a bison rancher, said that Delta County is very similar to Mesa County and urged that they be included in the same district.
Whittelsey currently lives in the 61st district, which also includes Summit, Pitkin, Lake and a segment of Gunnison County. He expressed concern that agriculture, one of the state’s biggest money generators, is not adequately represented in Denver.
Also, the drafted districts bisect the Delta County School District and the area for the newly combined high school for Hotchkiss and Paonia.
Delta County Commissioner Don Suppes said that splitting the county can sometimes be beneficial, but said that Cedaredge and Orchard City should remain in the same district.
“I have found that at times, it is actually a benefit to have two representatives or two senators that represent your county, but I do have issues with where that line is drawn,” Suppes said.
After all of the full census data is released later this month, the commissions will incorporate the new numbers and public comment into revised drafts of the districts. Another round of public comment will be solicited from around the state before final versions are submitted to the State Supreme Court.
These maps will be in place prior to the midterm elections in November 2022.
Anna Lynn Winfrey is a staff writer for the Montrose Daily Press.