Don’t let Kansas legislators discriminate when they redraw political boundaries

July 28, 2021 3:33 am

Senate President Ty Masterson will lead efforts to draw new district lines for the U.S. House, legislative seats and school boards. (April 9, 2021, photo by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Gretchen Eick is an author, educator and publisher in Wichita.

Nov. 3, 2020, saw the highest turnout of voters in U.S. history. Now, at least 18 state legislatures have passed laws to reduce voter turnout and restrict U.S. citizens’ access to their constitutionally guaranteed right to vote, especially targeting people of color. Kansas is among them.

The Kansas Legislature passed a law making it a crime to engage in activity that “gives the appearance of being an election official.” The law is so vaguely worded that organizations doing voter registration, foremost among them the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, have suspended registering and educating voters. They fear their well-informed members who register voters may be charged with impersonating election officials, a felony. This law has halted 100 years of LWV voter registration of new citizens and voters of all political parties.

The Kansas Legislature also has decided to rush the process of drawing new voting districts. The Kansas Constitution’ deadline for drawing new boundary lines is the end of the legislative session — May 2022. The Republican majority is considering setting boundaries that would dilute Black and Latino voting strength by assigning their communities to Republican-majority areas.

The responsibility for redistricting in Kansas is assigned to the Legislature. New boundaries — based on census data to be released Aug. 16 — will be drawn for the four districts that elect Kansas’ four members of U.S. Congress, the 40 districts that elect Kansas state senators, and the 125 districts that elect Kansas House members. The Republican majority’s redistricting commission is led by Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover. The governor has the right to veto a redistricting plan.

What does redrawing district lines for the U.S. House, the Kansas House, the Kansas Senate, and schools have to do with restricting voters from exercising their right to vote?

Federal law requires districts to have nearly equal populations (plus or minus 5%) and prohibits new boundaries from discriminating against voters on the basis of race or ethnicity. Where the boundaries of these districts run can greatly affect the power of your vote if you are Latino, Black or white, and live in urban areas where the population has increased since 2010. Rural Kansas continues to lose population while urban and northeastern Kansas gains population. Since 2010 Kansas has gained 84,762 people, exceeding predictions by 25,000. But one way to equalize district populations is to divide Wyandotte and Douglas Counties, areas which tend to vote Democratic, and assign neighborhoods of urban, Democratic voters to new districts where rural Republicans are in the majority. This would alter the outcome of elections to benefit Republican candidates. It would diminish the effectiveness of these residents’ votes, discriminating against them.

For Republican legislators seeking to advantage their party in the next decade of elections, redrawing boundaries to reassign Democratic areas of Kansas to adjacent Republican and western counties seems a brilliant strategy. Except it violates federal law. The U.S. Constitution is silent on redistricting, but it is not silent on reducing the right to vote for people according to their race or color. Section 1 of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the federal government and each state from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen’s “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Citizens of color and city-dwellers more frequently vote for Democrats. Reassigning the areas in which they live to districts predominantly white and Republican would reduce the power of their vote and violate their constitutional right to vote.

Forty-two of our 50 states require state legislative districts to accommodate political boundaries, i.e., to keep people of a city, county or town in the same district. If the Kansas Legislature tries this strategy of dividing districts where people of color reside, they will not only violate the U.S. Constitution. They will also set Kansas up for an extended and expensive court battle. Remember what happened after the 2010 census? The Kansas Legislature did not finish redrawing the lines before their session ended — its legal deadline. For the first time in history, the federal courts had to draw new district boundaries for Kansas.

The right to vote must not be politicized. Gov. Laura Kelly is right to call for a nonpartisan committee not composed of partisan legislators to do the redistricting.

The Legislature plans to hold 14 town halls to gather feedback from residents. Kansans should fill those meetings and demand an equal right to vote for all.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Gretchen Eick
Gretchen Eick

After 14 years as a foreign and military policy lobbyist in Washington, D.C., Gretchen Eick earned a Ph.D. from the University of Kansas and became a professor of history at Friends University. Awarded two Fulbright Scholar awards (to Latvia and Bosnia and Herzegovina) and a Fulbright Hays travel grant to South Africa, she is the author of seven books, two scholarly histories, four novels and a book of short stories. Her book on the civil rights movement, "Dissent in Wichita: The Civil Rights Movement in the Midwest, 1954-1972" (University of Illinois Press, 2001/2007) won three awards, resulted in two museum exhibits, and in 2009 a Telly-winning documentary film about the first successful student-led sit-in, the 1958 Dockum Drug Store Sit-in in Wichita. Eick’s 2020 book, "They Met at Wounded Knee: The Eastmans’ Story" (University of Nevada Press) is a history of U.S. policy toward Indigenous Americans and a double biography of the Dakota physician/writer/activist Charles Ohiyesa Eastman and his Anglo wife, Elaine Goodale Eastman, also a writer and activist. The Eastmans spent their lives working to reform Indian policy. From 2017 to 2020 she taught half a year in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, living the other half in Wichita, Kansas, where she and her husband, Mike Poage, run an independent press, Blue Cedar Press, publishing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.