Kansas redistricting should be fair. What’s been dumped on us is not.
U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, a Democrat from Kansas City, Kansas, up for re-election in 2022, pressed Wednesday for passage by Congress of election reforms to tamp down temptation of state legislatures to gerrymander congressional district maps. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
I’ve never liked Fridays. Chalk it up to superstition, but there’s something about a Friday that gives me the creeps. It makes me think twice about scheduling anything important on a Friday. Some of it goes back to my reporting days, because sources have a way of tossing bombshells into the inbox just before the weekend.
Releasing news on a late Friday afternoon to avoid, or at least deflect, coverage is an unsavory but common move. There’s an entire episode of Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing” about it called “Take Out the Trash Day.” The goal is to bury the story because the Saturday audience for news is smaller than on other days. In Kansas, at 6:10 p.m. on Friday, July 30, we had a classic example of a news dump, when the schedule for the town hall meetings for the Republican-led redistricting process was announced.
And what a dump it was.
During the last redistricting, in 2011, it took four months to hold 14 town hall meetings to gather input from voters across the state. This year, those town halls will be compressed into a single week, beginning at 9 a.m. Monday in Manhattan. All of them will be held on weekdays, and only four will take place after business hours. In addition, each town hall is slated for only 75 minutes.
We already know the Kansas population grew about 3% in the past 10 years and will keep its four congressional seats. What we don't know yet is neighborhood-by-neighborhood detail on race, Hispanic origin, age, and housing levels. The Census Bureau has scheduled a news conference for 1 p.m. Thursday to provide analysis of the “first local level results” on redistricting data. That's the kind of information you need to redraw districts fairly — or to arm yourself with the facts in advance of a town hall on redistricting. By the time of the Census Bureau release, however, the Kansas “listening” sessions will be nearly over.
But the goals of the GOP-controlled effort have already been announced, and the objective is retaining and increasing political power, not fairness or seeking public input. As in too many legislatures that are controlled by one party, and have no fear of a governor's veto, the politicians will be picking their voters.
Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican and the former Senate president, said the part you're not supposed to say out loud at a September 2020 meeting of the Pachyderm Club — that redistricting would be an opportunity to unseat U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids by gerrymandering. A video of Wagle making the comment was leaked by a voting rights activist.
Davids, the lone Democrat in the Kansas congressional delegation, represents the 3rd District, which encompasses all of Wyandotte and Johnson counties, which is the heart of Kansas City, Kansas. After Wagle's elephantine musings were made public, Gov. Laura Kelly called for a nonpartisan redistricting commission.
After the Aug. 30 news dump, the Democratic minority on the redistricting committee cried foul, and said the town hall schedule did not give ample time for input. The Republican leaders accused the Democrats of "politicizing" the process and said the nonpartisan legislative research staff had announced the schedule. Well, yes, but the staff takes direction on scheduling from the committee chairs.
This is the point in a typical commentary where it would be normal to give the "we said, they said" account, to share the colorful quotes and the bon mots. I'm not going to do that here, however, because often the importance of a thing can be lost in the fog of immediate partisan rhetoric. It's also the kind of "dumb objectivity" that author Susan Jacoby has warned against, which assumes that each side is equally valid.
Instead, I'm going to pose a question.
How does this town hall schedule serve democracy?
Journalists devote their careers to informing audiences, and many of us do so in the belief — backed up by data — that we are strengthening democracy. Yet, under deadline pressure and the responsibility to present accurate information, we often don't have the time to ask deeper questions. This is not to throw shade on any of the terrific reporting that was done in the wake of the town hall news dump, because many outlets did yeoman's work of covering it. But as a columnist, I have more time and distance.
So, does the town hall schedule serve democracy?
First, some background.
Redistricting takes place every 10 years, according to the Kansas Constitution and federal law, and states must reapportion electoral districts using population data from the U.S. Census Bureau. In Kansas, the Legislature handles redistricting, by committees of both chambers. This year, of 26 redistricting committee members, only seven are Democrats. The new districts are made by passing laws which, like other pieces of legislation, are subject to gubernatorial veto. But the Republicans have a supermajority in both chambers, enough to override any veto by Kelly, a Democrat.
During the last redistricting, in the 2010 cycle, the Legislature failed to agree on a plan to redraw congressional and state districts, largely because of "third party" politics that pitted moderate Republicans against the more conservative faction. A federal court drew the boundaries in 2012. That option, however, will not be available in this cycle. A 2019 U.S. Supreme Court decision declared that partisan politics, even in cases claiming extreme gerrymandering, are beyond the reach of federal courts. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the conservative majority, said redistricting results that are highly partisan may "reasonably seem unjust," but it's not the court's responsibility to find a solution.
In 2012, because of the aforementioned internecine Republican squabbles, Kansas was the last state to have a redistricting plan. Now that the moderate faction has largely been driven from the Statehouse by hyper-partisan politics, things may go more quickly. The accelerated town hall schedule is not an encouraging sign, at least not if you're concerned about fairness.
The result will likely be that the majority party will redraw the lines to suit itself, and not voters. Redistricting, in fact, is just one of the tools available to disenfranchise voters, by gerrymandering, stacking, cracking, and packing.
Changes in population do result, over time, in a changing congressional map. Kansas, for example, once had eight congressional districts. I can remember, for example, the tail end of the old 5th District, which included Wichita and southeast Kansas, which lasted from 1885 to 1993. But gerrymandering has long been recognized as an unfair way to manipulate the vote.
There are many forms of gerrymandering, each with a particular purpose, such as protecting an incumbent — or unseating one. One way that Davids could lose her constituency, and her seat, is if the 3rd District boundary were drawn in an extreme wedge shape, with the point in Kansas City, Kansas, but the broad tail in the western part of the state. In that case, you might have urban Wyandotte County (65% for Biden in 2020) sharing the same district as rural Gove County (88% for Trump).
Today, gerrymandering and other forms of boundary manipulation are aided by computer models that will slice and dice a district to provide a desired result, without having to hand-draw boundaries. In 2019, the American Legislative Exchange Council (known for its cookie cutter legislation that proliferates through conservative-held statehouses across the country) hosted a seminar that taught state lawmakers how to skew districts for political gain and defend against legal challenges. Wagle, the former state Senate president who said Davids’ 3rd District would be up for grabs, is an ALEC board member.
Just as computer models can be used to draw unfair districts, so too can computer models create more just ones. It really is all up to the intention of those drawing the boundaries. To try your hand at drawing your political boundaries, you can use DistrictBuilder, an open source redistricting tool. And to make the process more fair, the Brennan Center for Justice offers a simple solution: adopt independent commissions.
The current town hall schedule, taking place in a compressed timeline, during hours when most voters can't attend and ahead of the needed Census data, and orchestrated by a partisan-led commission, does not serve democracy.
Lines on maps have long been used to discriminate. Think of redlining in past decades, which denied residents in minority neighborhoods the possibility of home loans. Ten years ago, the Republicans gave us "Project Redmap," a plan to flip congressional districts and legislatures across the country by redrawing districts. The plan was so secret that in some states lawmakers were required to sign secrecy agreements. But the result was successful enough — in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and elsewhere — to give the GOP a 33-seat majority in the U.S. House, despite collectively receiving 1.4 million fewer votes.
Today's gerrymandering is no less bigoted than the old sin of redlining was.
When the history of the period immediately following the presidency of Donald Trump is written — and if honest histories are still allowed at that time — there will be chapters on how democracy was not at risk during a single day, or by a single act, or by a single individual. Instead, some historian perhaps yet unborn will see how democracy was eroded by a steady trickle of laws, passed in statehouses across the country, over the course of weeks and months and years.
Democracy is served when districts are drawn with respect for fairness and the integrity of neighborhoods, when classes of voters are not targeted for suppression, and when those in power practice the golden rule of politics — that is, remembering that they will not always be in power, at least not in a true democracy.
If democracy is to be more than just a footnote in some future dissertation, we must take our duties as citizens seriously. The last town hall meeting is scheduled for Lawrence at 1:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 13. That's a fitting date for a cramped schedule dumped on a Friday to begin with.
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