Colorado’s new redistricting process accused of ‘cracking’ historically African American districts

Posted at 5:42 PM, Aug 10, 2021

DENVER — Anywhere you look around the Five Points neighborhood there is history; that history is in the buildings, the streets and the stories of the people who call the area home.

The area is a historical cultural district, one of only two in Denver, and has been recognized for the important role it played in the African American community in the city.

The area has also been through a lot, from segregation to the KKK to redlining to busing and more.

Throughout good times and bad, this neighborhood and its neighbor in North Park Hill have stuck together and even voted together. The two neighborhoods have even been placed in the same legislative districts for decades.

“People who have represented this area, as I can remember from my childhood to this time, have been people who have lived in the neighborhood, who’s been a part of the neighborhood, who have attended the schools in the neighborhood,” said Charleszine Terry Nelson, longtime resident and the senior special collections and community resource manager at the Blair Caldwell African American research library.

Every 10 years, though, the state goes through a redistricting process as updated U.S. Census numbers are released.

The goal of redrawing the congressional and legislative boundaries every decade is to ensure there are roughly equal populations in each district so that people receive equal representation in their state and federal governments.

Historically, though, redistricting has also been a point of tension and uncertainty in minority communities.

“When African Americans hear about redistricting, we automatically get a little bit of anxiety due to gerrymandering,” said Jameka Lewis, a senior librarian at the Blair Caldwell African American Research Library. “Redistricting has been used as a tool for voter suppression.”

Throughout the state’s history, the task of redrawing the maps has been left to state legislatures and the courts.

However, in 2018, voters decided to flip that process on its head and allow independent redistricting commissions to be formed to redraw those maps.

Each commission is made up of 12 members who applied to be part of the process, four Democrats, four Republicans and four unaffiliated voters.

“The big intent really was to make this a less partisan process, but also to introduce competition so we don’t have these really safe districts where legislators can essentially roam free, in terms of their policy proposals, and ultimately leads to some polarization in the legislature and gridlock,” said Robert Preuhs, the chair of the political science department at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Any time maps are redrawn there are trade-offs; some incumbent legislators might end up being drawn into the same district and find themselves competing against one another.

Some neighborhoods might be drawn into a different area with different representation than they have had before. Some lawmakers who were holding comfortable majorities might suddenly find themselves in a contentious race.

In June, a series of preliminary maps were released showing a potential outline for the new districts.

Notably, North Park Hill and Five Points were drawn into separate districts, sparking criticism within the community and accusations that the maps “crack” the districts or divide them in such a way where minorities are no longer in the majority.

“Unfortunately Black and brown communities have been divided in a way that we feel is unacceptable,” said Rep. Leslie Herod, who represents District 8. “They cut the African American population in half, which effectually will decrease representation.”

Herod and Rep. Jennifer Bacon recently wrote an opinion piece in The Denver Post calling for the maps to be completely redrawn.

The op-ed says a similar dilution of minority populations is also taking place in El Paso County and Aurora.

In Five Points, the issue is even more stark because of where the new lines were drawn. Instead of expanding or contracting the lines of the current districts, the maps were completely redrawn.

One of the divides between districts runs down Colorado Boulevard, which is the same divide used during redlining practices in the 1930s.

Redlining was a practice used by banks and other lending institutions to offer better loans to people living in some areas and worse loans to those living in other areas.

The areas that received the lower loans or that experienced a more difficult time finding funding tended to be minority-dominated neighborhoods like Five Points.

The Federal Housing Administration literally drew maps of major metropolitan areas of where to lend and where not to lend. Colorado Boulevard was the boundary of one of those lines.

During a recent public meeting, residents sounded off their concerns about the new maps to a redistricting commission that is primarily white.

“It has taken us decades of work to erase these lines,” said Sondra Young, the president of the Denver branch of the NAACP. “The preliminary staff map draws a line right down Colorado Boulevard that redivides our community along that stretch of road, and it must be changed.”

Others, like Kadijah Haynes, tried to convey to the commission their belief that the preliminary maps were drawn from north to south, breaking up communities that have historically had ties with one another.

Instead, she believes the maps should have been drawn from east to west, since that’s how Denver grew over time.

“This community is knit together in a quilt that means something,” Haynes said. “Your districts have been drawn north-south, so they do not follow communities of interest. They do not follow the quilt, they cut the quilt to pieces.”

At that same meeting, former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb also spoke out about his concerns with the divisions the preliminary maps create. Webb described Denver as being treated like a stepchild or afterthought in the mapping process.

He went on to say that dividing the city into seven district’s ensures less representation and said the maps have no relevance to the Black community. Webb also expressed concerns that the new southwest district could violate federal law because it looks like it’s packing the entire Hispanic community in the area into one district.

Even if the divide of the preliminary maps stands, the new districts Five Points and North Park Hill have been divided into are likely to swing Democrat.

However, within the Democratic party, there are differences of opinion and focus that Lewis says matters when it comes to representation.

“Five Points has historically voted towards the liberal or Democratic side, but I think that the issue voting on separate issues tends to vary amongst community members,” Lewis said. “Housing stability and instability, talking about the influx of resources into the neighborhood, talking about housing discrimination, I mean, all of those things are core issues and core values.”

Other concerns were raised about placing neighborhoods like Washington Park with Val Verde or Hilltop with North Park Hill since the median incomes in the communities are vastly different.

None of the 12 commissioners on the independent redistricting commission are from District 8.

However, Jessika Shipley, the staff director of the Colorado Independent Redistricting Commission, insists that it was never the staff’s intention to crack districts or disenfranchise certain demographics.

“We had a meeting recently in Denver where we learned about some of the redlining practices in Denver historically, and the preliminary map cut the African American vote. We didn’t know that. We had no idea,” Shipley said. “We would never, ever look at disenfranchising voters. That’s not something that non-partisan staff would ever think to do, honestly. It’s so antithetical to what we do.”

Shipley insists the preliminary maps were important for the community to have a starting point for conversations about redistricting so that the community would have specific areas to point to with their suggestions.

She says the staff was not focused on protecting any incumbent or political party with the new maps.

After the public meetings wrap up, Shipley said the commission will take all of its notes and then determine how or whether to redraw certain districts.

The commission does have a hierarchy of priorities for what to consider when drawing the maps. According to those criteria, each district must:

  • Have equal populations to allow for equal representation
  • Comply with the federal Voting Rights Act
  • Be contiguous
  • Preserve communities of interest and political subdivisions
  • Be compact
  • Maximize the number of politically competitive districts

However, each priority is not considered equal in importance. The most important criteria is at the top of the list.

The districts also must not protect incumbents, declared candidates or any political party, and it must not deny or abridge the right of any citizen to vote on account of that person’s race or membership in a language minority group.

“Ultimately what we’re seeing is probably a more balanced approach to redistricting looking at demographics,” Preuhs said.

So far, reaction on the redistricting process is split; some, like Lewis and Preuhs, said they are trusting the process and hope it will result in fairer district maps.

Others, like Herod, say they aren’t sure this process is the best way forward since it cuts political voices out of an inherently political conversation.

“We’re seeing people who don’t really understand the neighborhoods drawing lines in maps for the neighborhoods,” Herod said.

She insists she’s not worried about protecting her seat or making sure she can get reelected. Instead, she wants to ensure historic representation moving forward.

The official U.S. Census data is set to be released on Aug. 16. Several more public hearings are scheduled in the coming weeks for Coloradans to have a chance to weigh in on the preliminary maps.

The deadline for the final congressional maps is set for Oct. 1. The final map deadline for the legislative maps is Sept. 15 currently, but that could change.