Melissa Harris-Perry: In most states, the state legislature is responsible for creating and approving district maps, but seven states have nonpartisan independent commissions in charge of the process. In 2018, Colorado voters widely supported two constitutional amendments that gave two independent commissions the responsibility of determining congressional and state political districts. Due to population growth in Colorado, the state gained an 8th congressional district. 12 commissioners on the Congressional Independent Redistricting Commission are working to determine what the new map will look like. Commissioner Jolie Brawner is the vice-chair of the Colorado Independent Congressional Redistricting Commission. Thank you for joining us today, Commissioner Brawner.
Commissioner Jolie Brawner: Thank you so much for having me today, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: First, talk to me about how one ends up a commissioner on this independent commission that is different than, for example, being elected to the statehouse and then drawing these districts.
Commissioner Jolie Brawner: We applied. I love to tell people that when they see an opportunity like this and they're interested, they should apply. I was nominated for my position and urged to apply by someone I had worked with in the past, and I thought this sounds like a great idea. Commissioners were selected through this application process. The applications were reviewed by nonpartisan legislative staff and a judicial panel. We then had a judicial panel that randomly selected 300 Democrats, 300 Republicans, and 450 unaffiliated voters to establish a selection pool of just over a thousand people.
From there, the judicial panel narrowed the selection with input from those legislative leaders, and then they had a lotto-style, bingo ball drawing where they drew balls, and we were selected for this commission. The commission is made up of four Democrats, four Republicans, and four unaffiliated voters.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I love this. It's a little bit game of chance. It's a little bit democracy, a little bit meritocracy. It's kind of all of those pieces together, the things that we think of as creating some sense of fairness. I want to ask, just in the broadest sense, can you just look at a map, let's say I'm not from Colorado, and I just pull up the map, put it down, and look at it. Can I simply, by looking at the shape of the districts, tell whether or not the map has been drawn in a fair way? I asked this in part because we talked about gerrymandering as the dragons or the oddly shaped districts. I'm wondering, is it absolutely fair to just draw squares, even in a relatively rectangular state like Colorado?
Commissioner Jolie Brawner: I love that you asked this question because the word gerrymandering gets thrown around whenever people see those squiggly salamandery lines that the practice is named after. In all honesty, the reason that we have humans doing this instead of computers is because we're assigning people to districts. We're not just assigning random boxes in the state of Colorado, we're creating districts that have to be exact in population down to the one person. We have a hierarchy of needs as established by our constitution, where we have to keep the districts contiguous, we have to keep them equal population.
Additionally, it's really important for us to focus on communities of interest. That's where the human element comes in, and the testimony and input from people around the state and our knowledge of the state. When we look at a map, the hope is we can look and see those communities, and make sure that like communities are with like communities and communities that work together are together and communities influenced by federal legislation have a louder voice together in Congress.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Say a little bit more about what a community of interest is. Is that just a fancy term of art, or is there a way that ordinary folks can go, "Oh, yes, those are the people in my neighborhood?"
Commissioner Jolie Brawner: It's somewhere in between art and science. The best way I can describe communities of interest is a string kind of analogy. Whereas if you look at a community, there might be a string that ties one agricultural community to a city that that's where everyone shops for their supplies, or that's where everyone goes and knows each other, and that's where their elected representatives are. Again, of that city, there might be a lot of strings that connect it to communities all over the state. Our job as a commission is to find those strings and cut as few of them as possible. It is a sliding scale. There are certain things outlined by the constitution of what a community interest is supposed to be and what it's not supposed to be.
Districts cannot protect incumbents, declared candidates, or any political party, or deny or suppress the right of any citizen to vote on account of that person's race, membership in a language minority group. We still look at it as what is that human element. In Colorado, where our people are really spread out, some of our lines look a little squiggly, and that doesn't necessarily mean the dreaded gerrymandering word. What it means is we have mountains and rivers and people move around those things. We have huge swaths of public land and federal land and state-controlled land with our great park system that we need to know where those things are when we're drawing the maps and how those affect federal legislation.
Melissa Harris-Perry: When you're talking about these communities of interest, how are you all getting input from interested communities?
Commissioner Jolie Brawner: That is an excellent question. We have several ways that the public can comment on the process. First of all, at any time in the process, people can head over to redistricting.colorado.gov, and they can add their public comment online. They can type up a public comment in our really easy-to-use form, hit submit, and we get those. We read all of them. Additionally, you can email us those comments, and those written comments are reviewed by staff. Additionally, we have a committee, which I am on, [chuckles] that reviews public comment and presents reports to the full commission to make sure everyone's getting that information in real-time and they have access to the full comments, but these reports are helping people contextualize where the comments are coming from.
Then we also took this show on the road and did about 36 hearings across our state over the summer. Constitutionally, we were obligated to have three hearings in each of our seven existing congressional districts, which as you could tell is only 21 hearings. As a commission, we felt the input of the public was so important that we added additional hearings just to hear extra input on the process.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Commissioner Jolie Brawner is the vice-chair of the Colorado Independent Congressional Redistricting Commission and just gave me a little more faith in how democracy works. Thank you for joining us, Jolie.
Commissioner Jolie Brawner: Thank you so much for having me. This was delightful.
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