A lawsuit filed against the El Paso County Board of Commissioners claims that the Board of Commissioners is withholding documents related to the county’s redistricting process in violation of the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA).
On April 16 James Howald requested, “any studies or presentations that were prepared by Mr. Dwayne Liller while he was an El Paso County public employee working in the county’s Clerk and Recorder office and that pertain to the evaluation of geographic, demographic, or socioeconomic impacts of previous redistricting of El Paso County Commissioner districts. These may include any studies, internal reports, and presentations that analyze past county redistricting efforts and how they relate to such matters as communities of interest, political competitiveness, and minority group voting representation.”
In an April 20 email, Natalie Sosa, the El Paso County deputy director of communications, claimed that the requested documents “are considered work product and are being withheld pursuant to C.R.S. § 24-72-202(6)(a) which excludes work product from the definition of public records. (6.5)(a) defines work product to include “intra- or inter-agency advisory or deliberative materials assembled for the benefit of elected officials, which materials express an opinion or are deliberative in nature and are communicated for the purpose of assisting such elected officials in reaching a decision within the scope of their authority.”
Attorneys representing Howald sent an appeal letter to Sosa and the El Paso County attorney on June 23. Howald’s complaint, filed July 10, argues, “The Liller Redistricting Data is not ‘work product’ as that term is defined in CORA. It was prepared in anticipation and preparation for the decennial redistricting of voting districts was occur in 2021, and with knowledge that the Colorado legislature was considering adopting a statute (e.g. House Bill, 21-1047, the County Gerrymander Statute, referenced below) which imposed anti-gerrymandering provisions applicable to County governments to bring Counties in line with other voting districts within the State of Colorado.”
Sosa responded to an emailed request for comment, “Although El Paso County does not comment on pending litigation, the working documents, drafted under the tenure of the previous elected Clerk and Recorder, were not utilized or considered in any final decision-making process related to previous redistricting and will not be considered at all in the current redistricting process.”
Howald’s lawsuit is the latest development in El Paso County’s redistricting process, which has garnered significant attention from Democrats, who argue that the Republican county commissioners are attempting to redraw districts in a way that will maintain Republican control.
“We believe in this process fully,” says Mischa Smith, chair of the El Paso County Democratic Party. “At the beginning, they asked us to be good citizens and to trust them and to contribute to this process, and we did. We tried to tell them our concerns, and multiple times in this process themselves, on the record, said that we were deserving of two competitive seats. Now we understand that competitive seats means independent, Democrat, Green Party, non-Republican seats. We understand that this is not about Democrat or Republican, but what happened at the last meeting showed us their true colors.”
The redistricting process is of interest to Democrats, in part, due to the shifting political landscape of El Paso County. Republicans have controlled the Board of County Commissioners for 50 years, but Democrats see an opportunity with the changing demographics of the electorate. During November’s election, Commissioner Cami Bremer, wife of Republican Senate candidate Eli Bremer, beat Democrat John Jarrell, the El Paso County Democratic Party’s second vice chair, by just 2,593 votes, a nearly 6% margin — a close race for historically conservative El Paso County. In May, Colorado Springs’ mayoral race was a shot across the bow for Republicans, with independent Yemi Mobolade defeating former Republican Secretary of State Wayne Williams.
“One of the criteria I have liked from the beginning was minimizing the ability for someone to vote me out of office every four years,” said Holly Williams, Wayne’s wife, during a May 8 Redistricting Commission meeting. Williams is term-limited.
Smith says comments like that are indicative of Republican plans to gerrymander county districts. “What’s so ironic is every time somebody gets close, these lines get redrawn in a way that makes it nearly impossible [for Democrats to win],” she says. “That’s just so interesting, isn’t it? That’s why we think this process is a farce.”
In 2021, the Colorado legislature passed House Bill 21-1047, which provided updated requirements for the redistricting process.
Howald’s complaint notes, “The Board of Commissioners of El Paso County, Colorado waited until 2023 to take action in accordance with the provisions of the County Gerrymander Statute. In that regard, although the County Gerrymander Statute recommends the appointment of an independent County Commissioner Redistricting Commission, the Board of County Commissioners appointed itself the Redistricting Commission for the County, and it appointed representatives of the Office of the El Paso County Clerk and Recorder as “Staff,” (including the Clerk and Recorder himself) to assist the Redistricting Commission.”
The redistricting process is mandated by statute, and coincides with the federal census. Colorado counties have delayed redistricting after the 2020 census due to COVID-19 and the passage of HB1047. Colorado law requires that the redistricting process balance population numbers, communities of interest, and a number of other factors when redrawing districts. During a June 21 Redistricting Commission meeting, El Paso County Commissioner Stan VanderWerf discussed the difficulties of balancing competing redistricting requirements.
“What I find interesting is when you try to address [population], you’re forced into doing other things,” he said. “Let’s say you make the argument that you’re going to try to make the Southeast [Colorado Springs] whole, but then in doing it you have to add precincts into District 4, because you’re taking precincts out of District 4, and the precincts that you’re going to add into District 4 look like gerrymandering, but you have to move something in order to get the numbers to work. As a consequence of trying to make the Southeast whole, you’ve got to do something else that doesn’t look right.”
One of the primary concerns for Democrats is the fate of Southeast Colorado Springs, which, in addition to being the most densely populated area of El Paso County, is also a majority minority region. In the Colorado Springs City Council it is represented by progressive Yolanda Avila, and at the State Capitol by Sen. Tony Exum (D-Co Springs) and Rep. Regina English (D-Co Springs). The area is currently represented by County Commissioner, and former Colorado Springs mayoral candidate, Longinos Gonzalez, a Republican.
“The biggest issue is that Southeast has not been whole since gerrymandering has happened in El Paso County, which has been 50 years,” says Smith. “Our biggest, most egregious issue is that Southeast needs to be kept whole, and we’ve asked for that.”
Smith is holding a community townhall prior to the next Redistricting Commission meeting, at 7:30 AM on July 17, before the 9 AM meeting. The Colorado Springs Democratic Socialists of America are also organizing a protest for the event.
Sosa notes that the redistricting process is ongoing and pushes back against Smith’s use of the term “farce” to characterize the process.
“HB 21-1047 bill gives communities multiple ways of doing this new process, because there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach,” Sosa said in an email. “El Paso County Commissioners were elected to represent the residents of El Paso County. They are committed to working on behalf of constituents to make sure their voices are heard, and that this process is fair and transparent. Commissioners feel that as elected representatives they are held to a higher standard and will ensure the process is fair, public, transparent, and upholds the law. Throughout every step of this process, we have diligently maintained compliance within the law. We have gone above and beyond the requirements, by hosting more meetings than required to ensure transparency is maintained. We have remained impartial, resisting any attempts by political parties to exploit the process for their benefit. It is disingenuous to describe this ongoing process as a farce when no final plan has been adopted.”