A new push to stop gerrymandering in Colorado has a secret ingredient: More unaffiliated voters

A year after a similar effort fell apart because of a legal challenge, a bipartisan coalition is back at the drawing board in an attempt to end partisan gerrymandering in Colorado.

Led by the League of Women Voters of Colorado, the coalition is drafting a 2018 ballot initiative that seeks to significantly dilute the power of the two major political parties in the state’s redistricting process, starting after the 2020 census.

Instead, it would give unaffiliated Coloradans — who now represent 35 percent of the state’s active voters — a decisive voice in how the state’s voting lines are drawn every 10 years. The hope is that it will put an end to the once-a-decade partisan war that has ended up in court three of the last four decades.

The redistricting process, which takes place across the country after each U.S. census, is typically ignored by all but the most politically active. But the way the district boundaries are drawn can have a profound effect on who gets elected, from the local offices all the way to Congress.

Often, it’s the party in power at the time that has the most influence in how the districts are drawn, giving them a chance to allocate their opponents’ voters in a way that gives them fewer chances to compete for seats.

“The feeling is that there’s still too much backroom dealing. And there’s still too much party politics,” said Barbara Mattison, a League of Women Voters member who is working on the project.

But the coalition’s task won’t be easy. It requires upending the way the state’s maps have been drawn for 40 years.

And it’s sure to face strict legal scrutiny. Because of a recent ballot measure that made it harder to change the state’s constitution, the group will try to enact reforms through a change in state law. But the current process is outlined in the state constitution, so any statutory changes will have to conform to the same basic legal framework of the existing redistricting process, led by the Colorado Reapportionment Commission.

Mattison says she believes it can be done.

The effort comes at a time when gerrymandering — the redrawing of districts to give an advantage to the party in power — has become a matter of increasing national concern. The U.S. Supreme Court last month agreed to hear a case out of Wisconsin, in which it will be asked to decide whether partisan gerrymandering disenfranchises voters and violates the Constitution.

Last week, The Associated Press published its own analysis that found that partisan gerrymandering of congressional and state legislative districts benefited Republicans four times as often as Democrats across the country.

In that analysis, Colorado was one of the few states with a Democratic advantage in its House of Representatives in the 2016 election. But historically, both parties here have sought to use the redistricting process to gain a leg up — most famously the so-called “midnight gerrymander” of 2003 by the Republican-led legislature, which was later rejected by the Colorado Supreme Court.

Under a draft proposal that hasn’t been finalized, the coalition — which includes politicians from both parties — would seek to remake the state legislative redistricting commission by requiring that at least three of its 11 members be unaffiliated. It would also try to enforce bipartisan consensus by requiring a supermajority vote to adopt any map.

In the last round of redistricting after the 2010 Census, there were five Democrats, five Republicans and one unaffiliated member, who served as a swing vote and ultimately sided with the Democrats. Republicans called the maps “politically vindictive” and predicted — accurately, it would turn out — that they would be to the Democrats’ benefit.

Last year, Democrats won 57 percent of state House seats in November even though Republicans won 50.4 percent of the statewide vote in those races. Democrats won 37 of 65 House seats, theoretically five more than would be expected based on their statewide vote share, according to The Associated Press analysis.

“We really believe votes should count,” Mattison said. “Voters should pick their politicians. Politicians shouldn’t pick their voters.”

A similar setup would be established for congressional redistricting, which today is supposed to be handled by the state legislature. In the most recent round, lawmakers couldn’t agree on a plan, and the current map was selected by court order. The Associated Press found no significant evidence of partisan bias in those districts.

To get the initiative on the 2018 ballot, the coalition must collect at least 98,492 signatures from registered voters — or 5 percent of the votes cast in the most recent secretary of state election. Voters can approve ballot initiatives with a simple majority. For constitutional measures, the signature and vote thresholds are significantly higher.

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