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Archive for Sunday, August 11, 2002

A first step

August 11, 2002

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A timely proposal by two state senators will start the discussion of better ways to accomplish the redistricting process in Kansas.

There's not much positive that can be said about this year's process to redraw legislative and congressional districts in Kansas. After months of disagreements over where the lines would be drawn, there seemed to be only one point on which most observers and participants of the process could agree and that is that the redistricting system should be changed.

The time to consider those changes is now, while the memory of the 2002 fiasco is fresh in our minds, and that's why it's good to see two state senators put a viable plan on the table for the state's consideration.

At a news conference in Topeka and in conversation with Journal-World staff members Thursday morning, State Sens. Derek Schmidt, R-Independence, and Christine Downey, D-Newton, presented a plan that would take much of the politics out of the Kansas redistricting process. Like the plan followed by Iowa for the last three decades, the Kansas proposal calls for redistricting lines to be redrawn by an independent body and presented to the state Legislature for its approval.

If the Legislature doesn't like the plan, it can reject it and ask for a new map. If it doesn't like the second map, it asks for a third. On the first two tries, the Legislature can only turn thumbs up or thumbs down. Only on the third map can the Legislature amend the map if it finds it unacceptable. Iowa's Legislature has never reached that point.

The Kansas plan differs from the Iowa process when it comes to who will draw the map. In Iowa, the maps are drawn by the legislative services department, but the Kansas proposal calls for that job to be done by an independent commission. The members of the commission would be appointed by leaders of the executive, legislative and judicial branches. There must be representatives from each congressional district and no more than four members of a single political party.

The commission is charged with drawing lines in accordance with state and federal laws guided by only three considerations: preserving political subdivisions like cities and counties, preserving communities of interest and avoiding putting two current officeholders in a single new district. The plan has strict timeline that requires the whole process to be finished by May 1 to prevent the election delays that were threatened this year.

Another aspect of the plan that will be popular in Lawrence and other college communities is that it would do away with the state's census adjustments that seek to return students and military personnel to their "home" communities. The $450,000 the state spent on that adjustment this year is expected to be more than enough to cover the cost of the new redistricting process.

The proposal of Schmidt and Downey is a constitutional amendment that would have to be approved by two-thirds of both houses of the Legislature and by two-thirds of Kansas voters. Partly because the senators are aware of the political realities of gaining that two-thirds majority they chose not to attempt to take every vestige of politics out of the process.

What they did try to do is come up with a plan that would allow the redistricting process to be completed without the raw politics that damaged so many relationships in the Kansas Legislature over the last year. The bad feelings that hung over every other piece of business conducted in the 2002 session are likely to linger for a number of years, they said.

The two also said that a change was needed to respond to new redistricting software that allows incumbents to hone districts to their advantage in great detail. Increasing the incumbent advantage has several negative factors, the senators said. Not only does it discourage others from challenging incumbents, but it diminishes voter participation. And incumbents who have virtually handpicked their voters become so confident of their re-election that they may contribute to a stridency in the Legislature that discourages the kind of compromise required in fashioning strong legislation.

Downey and Schmidt are open to compromise on their plan. They know it may not be perfect, but it's a start  and now is the time to get to work to prevent a repeat of the shameful 2002 redistricting process.

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