Districting, not Demographic Shifts, Determines Colorado’s Electoral Destiny
The influence of district boundaries on electoral results has long been recognized (adding new words to the political lexicon) – making the fight for control of the decennial redistricting process (for both state legislative and Congressional districts) both bitterly partisan and hard-fought.
In Colorado, the process for determining both Congressional and state legislative district boundaries has, for decades, been dominated by the courts – specifically, the perennially and predictably partisan Colorado Supreme Court.
Ultimately, no other factor better explains the relative electoral successes of both parties in Colorado over the last decade (or longer) in gaining legislative seats than the (re)districting process, nor more strikingly highlights the role of Colorado’s courts in “playing” (instead of refereeing) electoral politics.
The following article was published as a guest commentary in the Colorado Springs Gazette on Wednesday, 14 November 2012.
Colorado’s Election Outcome Was Determined Years Ago
(By Matt & Sarah Arnold)
A veritable plethora of pundits, former state party and elected officials, and other political operatives have been weighing in on the (to them, surprising) results of the 2012 elections in Colorado – which not only saw GOP losses in the two statewide races (President and CU Regent At-Large) but also ended the tenuous Republican majority in the State House, maintained the Democrat numbers in the State Senate, giving Democrats control of all branches of state government.
Many of them have “explained” the outcome (and their failure to predict election results) in Colorado as resulting from demographic shifts, gender gaps, or superior technology and tactics.
They are all wrong.
While the statewide candidates failed due to their inability to inspire support beyond straight party-line voters, the outcome of state legislative races was largely determined years ago. The seeds of the 2012 Republican defeat were planted in 2010, germinated in December 2011, and were only harvested in November 2012 – all due to how district lines were drawn. (For more information on this topic, search “reapportionment” on www.clearthebenchcolorado.org).
State legislative district reapportionment set the stage for Democrats to pick up seats in the State House, and hold their majority in the State Senate. If anything can be said to have “determined” the outcome of the 2012 state legislative elections, this was it.
In fact, the state legislative election results were not only predictable – they were actually predicted. Sarah Arnold, in her Elections 2012 forecast (published on 15 October 2012), correctly predicted the outcome of 91 out of 94 Colorado races (an additional 4 races were rated as “tossups”) based on a combination of numbers-crunching, knowledge of the candidates/campaigns, and political intuition (see PolitiGuru Elections 2012 on http://politigurugop.blogspot.com/p/2012-election.html).
As far back as 2009, Matt Arnold (Director of Clear The Bench Colorado) noted the importance of the former Chief Justice Mary Mullarkey’s appointments to the 2001 commission in setting the stage for the Democrat takeover of both legislative chambers through most of last decade; although in 2010, Republicans got more votes in all state House/Senate races combined (58% and 54%, respectively), those votes did not translate to actual seats (33/65 and 15/35, respectively). Unfortunately for GOP electoral fortunes in Colorado, Republican Party “leadership” failed to grasp the strategic implications of this fact in 2010.
State legislative election results this year demonstrate the same trend. In the 2012 state Senate races, GOP candidates garnered 43.5% of the total votes cast; proportional to the number of seats contested, this would have equaled 8.7 seats. Instead, Republicans won only 7 seats (of 20). In the House, GOP candidates received 48.5% of total votes cast; proportional to the number of seats contested, this would have equaled 32 seats: instead, Republicans won only 27 seats (of 65).
(Based on 8 Nov SOS numbers).
Clearly, there are other factors involved in the GOP’s performance (or lack thereof) in Colorado this year (ranging from individual candidate appeal to general messaging to media bias to technology lag to party organizational & leadership deficiencies, etc); however, demographic shifts (such as the growing percentage of Hispanic voters in Colorado) fail to explain the consistently abysmal GOP performance at the state level (total GOP vote % in state legislative races has consistently hovered at the 48%/44% level for several electoral cycles, with the notable exception of the 10% spike to 58%/54% in the “Tea Party surge” of 2010).
If 2010 was an anomalous year, basing reapportionment on the numbers achieved that year would skew results, making districts appear more “Republican” than they have performed historically.
Bottom Line: even WITH the stars aligning for the GOP in 2010, due to state legislative (re)districting, seats won has lagged the percentage of votes received. Because of the way the district lines are drawn, even “good-performance voting” years are bad (in seats won), and “bad-performance” years are worse. The 2012 state legislative electoral results are simply a reflection of, and return to, that reality.
Lack of leadership, and a dearth of strategic vision, has enabled the creation of an uneven playing field and led to a decade-long minority status in a state with more registered Republicans than Democrats, and a fairly right-of-center leaning block of unaffiliated voters – not impersonal (and inexorable) “demographic” changes.
(Matt Arnold is the founder and executive director of Clear The Bench Colorado, the state’s premier judicial accountability organization; Sarah Arnold is a political strategist and campaign consultant.)
Clear The Bench Colorado will, with your support, continue to promote transparency and accountability in the Colorado judiciary, informing the public to increase awareness of the substantial public policy implications of an unrestrained activism and political agendas in the courts. We will continue to work to educate voters and provide information of relevance related to the judicial branch, and to provide useful and substantive evaluations of judicial performance.
Ultimately, though – it’s worth the effort.