Legislature embarks on tumultuous redrawing of political maps with skeptical public watching

Previous attempt in 2012 a train wreck, leaving federal judges to craft maps

By: - January 5, 2022 10:23 am
Twenty members of the Kansas Legislature absorbed public comment on redistricting and the evils of gerrymandering during a town hall in Lawrence at the University of Kansas. Similar town halls were held throughout the state. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Twenty members of the Kansas Legislature absorbed public comment on redistricting and the evils of gerrymandering during a town hall in Lawrence at the University of Kansas. Similar town halls were held throughout the state. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Lenexa resident Scott Roby said the Kansas Legislature and Gov. Laura Kelly should work together during the 2022 legislative session to give the redistricting process a chance of producing new political boundary maps infused with common sense rather than power politics.

“Redistricting is about the Census and is not an excuse for politicians to attempt to choose their own voters. Whether you be Democrat or Republican, don’t tread on redistricting,” he said.

Topekan Glenda Overstreet Vaughn, founder of Kansas People of Color Action Coalition, said she was convinced some state legislators on the House and Senate redistricting committees were willing to disenfranchise voters while overhauling districts for the Kansas House, Kansas Senate, U.S. House and state Board of Education. She said this once-a-decade project could intensify the marginalization of Blacks and other minorities in Kansas.

J.C. Moore, of Haysville, offered a plan for avoiding the ugly gerrymandered maps typical of states lacking commitment to fairness.

“Please make the process as nonpartisan as possible,” Moore said. “Ideally, set up an independent committee to draw the boundaries. Use regular shapes my as much as possible. There is no reason for districts to look like jigsaw puzzle pieces. Keep small communities and towns together. Keep the U.S. representative districts much as they are.”

North Newton resident Rodger Nugent said the work wouldn’t be difficult once partisanship was idled. His advice: “Use second-grade math to divide the districts. It’s not that hard.”

The task of serving interests of nearly 3 million Kansans falls to the state’s 125 representatives, 40 senators and one governor. The annual legislative session starts Monday and redistricting must be done by June to provide an orderly process of candidate filings.

 

Rural to urban shift

U.S. Census Bureau reports show 80 of the state’s 105 counties lost population in the last decade. That means growth areas, including Wichita and Johnson County, are destined to gain political clout while voices pressing the agenda of rural areas of the state lose volume.

Zack Pistora, representing the Kansas Rural Center, said rural counties accounted for 85% of Kansas in terms of geography, but only 1 million of the state’s people. This slice of the population has a long history in agriculture and continues to power the state’s economy, he said.

“Our concerns include issues that may never ever occur to folks who live in urban, eastern parts of our state like Johnson and Wyandotte counties,” he said. “Things like slowing the outmigration of young people, tackling anti-trust in agriculture and combating the closure of rural hospitals.”

The bottom line, he said, was rural Kansas should remain concentrated as much as possible in new district boundaries at all levels of elected office.

Changes to congressional boundaries must occur in accordance with population changes in the four districts between the 2010 and 2020. During that decade, the rural 1st District of western Kansas lost 12,500 people and the 2nd District dwindled by fewer than 300. The 4th District anchored by Wichita gained 18,500 people and the 3rd District grew with addition of 78,900 people.

The underlying goal of redistricting is to bring population totals of the four districts into balance. The same principle is applied to mapping the 125 Kansas House and 40 Kansas Senate districts.

The Republican Party has made no secret of an interest in developing congressional districts that protected interests of three incumbent GOP congressmen and undercut re-election prospects of the state’s lone Democrat in Washington, U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids. The Democratic Party has the opposite goal.

Evelyn Hill, of the Justice and Equity Coalition of Wyandotte County, said she was concerned the Legislature would shatter the 3rd District comprised primarily of Wyandotte and Johnson counties.

“We believe our urban community differs vastly from the rural communities that are being considered,” Hill said. “We believe in the concept of justice and liberty for all. It would be an injustice to redistrict our community.”

 

Gaining a political edge

In terms of seats in the Kansas Legislature, the party in charge has sought to protect vulnerable seats and thwart numerical gains by the minority party. Maps adopted by the GOP-led House and Senate will be subject to review by Kelly, a Democrat. She could sign or veto the maps. However, the GOP holds two-thirds majorities in both chambers and could produce a party-line veto override.

Charley Crabtree, a board member with the League of Women Voters of Lawrence and Douglas County, urged lawmakers to avoid legal and political quagmires.

“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,” Crabtree said.

Not all of issues raised by Kansans during public hearings in August and November on redistricting appeared complex. Sometimes, as in Graham County, it came down to shifting a single line.

Jana Irby, election clerk in Graham County, made an appeal for two people who were the only residents from the county included in the 110th district of the Kansas House. If map developers shifted the boundary to the Solomon River rather than sticking with U.S. Highway 24, she said, the problem of publicly disclosing how those two individuals voted in elections would be solved.

“I believe all voters should have the right to have privacy for their votes,” Irby said.

Sharon Sweeney, a resident of Valley Falls, said she would appreciate the Legislature’s help recasting Kansas Senate boundaries to shift Sen. Marci Francisco, a Lawrence Democrat, away from Jefferson County.

“We are a largely rural, largely conservative county,” she said. “Marci does not share our values, nor does she hear our voices. She is a die-hard Lawrence liberal. If at all possible, I would like to see Jefferson County redistricted with Jackson County or perhaps Leavenworth County. Either could give us a large enough population block for a district and a grouping of individuals whose values more closely resemble those of Jefferson County.”

 

Lawsuits on horizon?

During the upcoming redistricting debate at the statehouse, dozens of proposed maps will emerge from computers that weave a legislator’s objectives with Census data. The Legislature’s deadline is June 1, because that’s the point at which candidates need to file for office ahead of the August primary.

The Legislature failed to complete the task in 2012 and the process was taken over by a panel of three U.S. District Court judges who listened to a couple days of testimony before publishing their own maps. It resulted in dozens of incumbent versus incumbent races.

It’s conceivable lawsuits could be filed in 2022 by Republicans or Democrats convinced the final product disenfranchised Kansans by ignoring communities of interest associated with geographic, economic, cultural, educational or ethnic similarities.

Attempts to turn the process over to independent commissions hasn’t gained traction in Kansas. Nearly 20 years ago while a member of the Kansas Senate, Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt proposed a constitutional amendment that would have handed off the process to a commission with representatives of the three branches of state government. As expected, it never got off the ground. Comparable proposals offered to the Legislature by Democrats haven’t gained traction.

Stacey Knoell, executive director of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission, said the Legislature ought to implement by 2030 a process of redistricting that handed the job to an impartial board. In the meantime, she advised politicians to avoid the temptation to gerrymander.

“We trust that you will want Kansans voting over the next decade to know this committee acted in good faith and conducted the process of drawing district lines with an eye on fairness,” she said.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.

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