Twenty members of the Kansas Legislature absorbed public comment on redistricting and the evils of gerrymandering during a town hall Friday in Lawrence at the University of Kansas. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
LAWRENCE — The Kansas Legislature’s committees responsible for redrawing political boundaries based on new U.S. Census Bureau data were urged during the final session of a 14-city tour to avoid decisions resulting in partisan, racial and prison gerrymandering.
A cluster of people testifying to 20 legislators Friday at the University of Kansas’ business school requested congressional maps not be recast by the Republican-led Legislature for the purpose of unseating U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids — the state’s lone Democrat in the congressional delegation. In that vein of thought, lawmakers were pressured to turn aside map proposals that harmed representation in communities of color.
And, the state’s political mapmakers were asked to not repeat an attempt 10 years ago to grant cities that hosted prisons unearned political strength by counting inmates as residents of a prison city rather than where they lived previously.
Aileen Berquist, community engagement manager at the nonpartisan ACLU of Kansas, said legislators should avoid deliberately disenfranchising minorities and communities of color through gerrymandering by treating incarcerated people as if they lived outside a prison’s barbed fencing on Main Street.
“Prison gerrymandering uses incarcerated people to bolster the voting strength of the largely white, rural districts where incarceration facilities exist,” Berequist said. “This skews the voting power of that district and seals it in for a decade. Prison gerrymandering also dilutes the voting strength of minority groups by taking their vote out of their communities of origin.”
Until federal judges took over redistricting a decade ago, the proposed Kansas House map would have created a district in Leavenworth County that contained state, federal and military prisons. The U.S. District Court separated the prisons among three House districts to thwart what the Prison Policy Initiative warned would have stood as the most dramatic instance of prison-based gerrymandering in any state legislative district in the nation.
The derailed House map would have given rise to House District 40, a unique political creature. Every four residents in it would have held the political influence of five residents in any other district, even though federal prisoners included in that count would have been from all over the country.
Retired Topeka educator Pam Ensley, speaking during the tour stop in Lawrence, said former Senate President Susan Wagle made clear during remarks to a Republican organization in Wichita the once-a-decade redistricting in 2022 stood as a great opportunity to deploy congressional gerrymandering to defeat Davids.
The basic math would require Democrats to be withdrawn from her 3rd District and most likely layered into the 1st District held by GOP U.S. Rep. Tracey Mann or the 2nd District served by GOP U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner. The trick would be to preserve margins of victory for Mann and LaTurner while greasing the wheels for Davids’ GOP challenger.
“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,” Ensley said.
She referenced the Redistricting Majority Project, or REDMAP, operated in 2010 by the Republican State Leadership Committee to increase the number of Republican-controlled state legislatures who could vote to form precise congressional district boundaries favoring GOP nominees.
In 2012, Republicans achieved a 33-seat advantage over Democrats in the U.S. House despite Democratic candidates in that election collectively receiving 1 million more votes than the Republican candidates.
“Lines on maps have long been used to discriminate,” Ensley said. “Today’s gerrymandering is no less bigoted than the old sin of redlining was. And, that appears to be the intent of these partisan hearings in Kansas this past week.”
She said democracy was best served when political districts were drawn to respect fairness and integrity of neighborhoods, when classes of voters weren’t targeted for suppression and when lawmakers remembered they wouldn’t always be in power.
Jamie Shew, the Douglas County clerk responsible for managing elections, requested state legislators complete redistricting work well ahead of the August primary election in 2022.
Layered in that plea was a desire to avoid the 2012 failure of the Legislature to agree on maps, which resulted in the process being tossed to a three-judge panel in U.S. District Court. The court-ordered maps were released a few days before candidate filing deadlines and a couple weeks before the deadline to send ballots to citizens, including members of the military, working overseas.
He said the county had to quickly produce 110 different ballot formats respectful of the new district lines and comply with requirements that candidate names on ballots be rotated. New voter information cards also had to be printed and mailed to advise people of their new voting districts.
“To avoid potential mistakes and stress on local election offices, I encourage all involved with the redistricting process to complete redistricting with sufficient time for our offices to complete our work,” he said.
Shew said a more thoughtful redistricting process wouldn’t replicate what happened a decade ago to Willow Springs Township. It’s south of Lawrence and includes 1,165 voters. Until 2012, the township’s residents were part of a single Kansas House district and single Kansas Senate district. Federal judges, however, divided the township horizontally into two House districts and vertically into two Senate districts. That created four distinct voting districts and ballots in the township.
“During a partisan primary, there are eight different ballots to be distributed,” Shew said. “If the districts remain the same in 2022, with the addition of a nonpartisan ballot for the constitutional amendment, Willow Spring would have 12 different ballots.”
The 14-city tour starting in Manhattan and ending in Lawrence harvested hundreds of public comments about the redistricting process, the special character of rural and urban communities and a sense that people would welcome a bipartisan approach to redrawing political boundaries. The schedule, location, timing and format of the town hall meetings was repeatedly denounced.
It’s possible additional town halls could be scheduled and the public would have opportunity to weigh in on maps during House an Senate hearings next legislative session.
Ryan Reza, a senior student at the University of Kansas, said redistricting committees of the Legislature had an opportunity to walk in the footsteps of people most impacted by alteration of U.S. House, Kansas House, Kansas Senate and Kansas Board of Education districts. Members of the Legislature have a chance to show how equal and fair can be defined by a process that tends to be overtly political, he said.
“Politics in the present day is a mess,” Reza said. “No matter what side you’re on, there is a deep divide that prevents us from working towards changes that this country needs.”
The redistricting town halls were launched before release Thursday of U.S. Census Bureau data pivotal to drafting of the new political district lines. The population information represents where people across the country were living April 1, 2020. More user-friendly versions of population statistics should be released by the Census Bureau Sept. 30.
Data reveals the trend in Kansas from 2010 to 2020 was for urban centers to add population and for rural areas to continue to lose people.
The 2022 Legislature, where the GOP holds two-thirds majorities in both chambers, will be responsible for drawing maps subject to veto by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. Once maps clear legislative and executive branch hurdles, the four documents must be scrutinized by the Kansas Supreme Court. In addition, redistricting is subject to potential litigation that could delay completion of the process.
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