JulieMarie Shepherd Macklin, who holds a PhD from and teaches at CU Boulder, is helping Colorado redraw its political boundaries in a more equitable and democratic fashion
In 2018, Colorado voters overwhelmingly approved two constitutional amendments to change how congressional and state legislative districts are drawn, taking the process away from the Colorado Legislature and giving it to an independent, non-partisan commission.
This marks the first time in Colorado history that political boundaries will be established in a non-partisan way, and the commission’s work will affect elections and representation for at least the next decade.
JulieMarie Shepherd Macklin (Polsci; MA; PhD), a University of Colorado Boulder instructor, serves on the Colorado Independent Congressional Redistricting Commission, which is drawing the boundaries of the state’s eight congressional districts.
Congressional and state legislative districts are redrawn after each U.S. Census. Because of population growth, Colorado will soon have eight (rather than seven) representatives in Congress.
Macklin, a Republican, represents the 6th Congressional District on the commission. She is one of 12 members of the commission, which is evenly divided among Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters.
Macklin is academic director for the CU Boulder Presidents Leadership Class and teaches in political science.
Macklin recently answered questions about the commission and its importance. Those questions and her answers follow:
Question: You are a member of the Colorado Independent Congressional Redistricting Commission. Why is its work important?
Answer: The process historically in Colorado has been driven by partisanship and politics, and then the final decision and the maps that we've ended up living with for the last four iterations have been decided by courts, which arguably have very little connection to you and me, as residents living in Colorado.
One of the main reasons why this is important is that Coloradans want and deserve a process that puts power and responsibility back in the hands of the people.
Is it your sense that the courts didn’t do as good a job as an independent commission would have done?
I don't know that I want to get into a value assessment of the courts’ maps. I mean, just to be to be candid, the last two times the courts were involved, they ended up picking the map that was drawn by Democrats.
I won't say that that's good or bad, but there was clearly a partisan slant to the maps in the past, as opposed to now having a commission that more closely mirrors the electoral makeup of Coloradans, having that mix of Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated.
With the final map that we ultimately approve, unaffiliated voters have to support it and weigh in on it, and at least two of four unaffiliated members have to vote in favor of the final plan that the commission puts forward. So it won't be a Democrat or Republican map. It should truly be a bipartisan effort.
Do you think this this new process for insulate redistricting from legislative challenges?
Absolutely. The previous work was done either by the Legislature when drawing Congressional lines, or to draw state House and Senate lines, it was a committee that was appointed by the Legislature. In the past the line-drawers have been directly connected to or part of the state Legislature, as opposed to now, very much less in influence from the Legislature.
In fact, a good testament and test of this is that the commission has already been in front of the state Supreme Court. Early on in the process this year, the General Assembly was trying to pass a bill that would dictate what the commission was doing, in particular, in reference to data we were using, just navigating the census delays. But the Legislature essentially was trying to reinsert itself into this commission’s process, into the commission’s work.
We ended up in front of the Supreme Court through interrogatories, a question asking the court to weigh in on, ‘Is this bill from the Legislature germane to the process?’ The court, in a 5-2 decision sided with the commission, saying, ‘Hey, look, Colorado voters said they wanted this process to be removed from the Legislature.’
The Legislature has two roles in this work, and that's to appropriate funds to support the commission and to recommend some of the commissioners (who serve), and even those recommendations are reviewed by a panel of retired judges who make the final select. … So the court really affirmed that this is a separate entity from the Legislature.
When the average everyday person is not involved, is not voicing their opinion, is not holding their member of Congress or their state legislator accountable."
You talked about the courts picking maps drawn by Democrats. Without commenting on that case in particular, could you spell out why it matters that a map was drawn by partisans?
I think there are a couple reasons why having an independent commission draw lines becomes important for you and me, for folks living and voting in Colorado. When the Legislature draws lines, they’re the ones in power. They're drawing their own lines; they're picking their voters.
So there's that issue. When we add in the party level, strategically (understandably, but strategically) the Republican Party is going to have one set of lines that they see as favorable. The Democratic Party is going to have another set of lines that they see as favorable, whether it's for specific candidates, incumbents, or a 10-year strategy.
With the independent commission, the constitutional language expressly forbids us from considering incumbents and challengers. In the past, when lines were drawn by the Legislature, (politicians) know where they live. Theoretically, you could draw your lines to make sure your (own) house was in your district (in the next election). We can't do that, so in our data set, we have no addresses of current legislators, current members of Congress. None of those addresses are in any of our data.
In fact, there was a newspaper article when the preliminary plan was first released; they did the analysis and said, ‘Oh, look, these maps pit incumbents against each other.’ But we don't consider that. I think that's one of the biggest advantages of having a commission draw lines, as opposed to the Legislature.
The second element that I think is especially important for Coloradans is the role of unaffiliated (voters). June 2021 data from the Secretary of State’s office shows that unaffiliated voters make up over 40% of all active Colorado voters. Before the commission process, these voters would be marginalized in the process. But now, because a third of the makeup of the bipartisan commission is unaffiliated, they now have a specific voice in the process.
Does the average citizen understand gerrymandering and redistricting?
For the average Coloradan, I think there's a general understanding of these issues at a very high level. The term “gerrymandering,” I think, is familiar to many people, and it maybe evokes this idea that, in our country's history, especially during the Civil Rights era, there was gerrymandering along racial lines to really favor one population or to dilute the voice of another racial or ethnic group. I think some people have those loose connections, and that's where their mind goes when they hear “gerrymandering”; it’s most often to issues of racial gerrymandering.
But in Colorado people also think about and are aware of partisan gerrymandering. I ran for the state Legislature in 2014, and when I was going door to door talking to average residents, average Coloradans, the thing that I continually heard was, ‘A Democrat is always going to be the one that gets elected because of the neighborhood that I live in.’
That idea really resonates with the public and is front and center in a lot of people's minds.
In Amendments Y and Z, there is that criterion about political competitiveness, so that is one of the pieces we're looking at as a commission: When we draw these lines, to the extent possible, can we create more politically competitive districts?
Now I will say that is the last criterion that we consider. First and foremost, districts have to have equal population, to the extent possible, follow political subdivision boundaries (cities, counties, etc.) and preserve communities of interest. Political competitiveness is lower on our criteria list, but it is something we're looking at. And I think that if you ask the average Coloradan about redistricting, they want lines that are representative and competitive.
Why are competitive districts a good thing?
It ties into several fundamental ideas of our political system, that as voters, our voice and our vote actually carries the power of accountability—that I can actually use my vote to affirm someone in office or to remove someone in office. When we don't have competitive districts, people often feel that their vote doesn't matter, that candidate so-and-so is going to win anyway; my vote doesn't matter. Part of what underlies our political system is that we have to have that idea of one person, one vote, and my vote makes a difference.
The commission is soliciting public feedback on its proposed boundaries. Why should citizens get involved and comment on the commission’s work?
On the commission, we do have Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated folks from all over the state, but we still need Coloradans to get involved in and share their opinions and comments and perspectives. Even though our commission represents each of the current seven congressional districts, we still don't know every corner of the state.
We’ve recently started our public hearings, traveling the eastern half of the state and hearing from people that live in Lamar, Colorado, and understanding what life is like in Lamar what the what the industries are. Public comment gives me information that I can't get from just Googling “Lamar, Colorado.”
Let's say you're talking to young people who are 18 or older, and they tell you that politics are broken and divisive, so why should I bother?
I think we hear that quite a bit. I hear that in in my political science classes. It's it is it's easy to feel like your opinion and your voice and your perspective doesn't matter or that it's just so divisive so messy you don't want to get involved.
But I'll come back to this idea that the underpinning of our political system hinges on people being involved and people caring about what happens and people spending time researching the candidates that get elected. In fact, part of the level of contention and partisan divide and inability to compromise that we see, especially at the national level in politics, in some ways can be traced back to voters and people disengaging from the political process.
When the average everyday person is not involved, is not voicing their opinion, is not holding their member of Congress or their state legislator accountable, then that's when we start to see these really extreme voices, the interest groups, the lobbyists, members of Congress that have been there for decades: That all goes unchecked when we don't when we don't take time to research, to vote, to learn about the issues.