At a recent hearing about congressional redistricting in Kansas, House Speaker Mike O’Neal dismissed the concerns of Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley about districts being redrawn to benefit Republicans as a “conspiracy theory.”
Let’s be honest. The idea that whatever party is in control of the redistricting process is going to “conspire” to redraw districts to their party’s advantage isn’t a theory; it’s a simple fact. It’s just how the system works.
Sen. Tim Owens, an Overland Park Republican and chairman of the Senate redistricting committee, amplified O’Neal’s point by saying he had no intention of gerrymandering districts to benefit one party in the next elections. Gerrymandering, in its most extreme form, creates oddly shaped districts, sometimes with narrow tentacles reaching out to pick up voters in the majority party. That may not occur this year in Kansas, but that doesn’t mean district lines won’t be shifted in ways that reduce the influence of voters in the minority party.
It’s just the way the process work. This year — and most years in Kansas — the Republicans are in the majority in the state Legislature and, therefore, in the driver’s seat when it comes to redrawing congressional and legislative districts. Although it rarely happens in Kansas, if Democrats were in control, they would do the same thing.
That’s why it seems a bit disingenuous to maintain, as O’Neal did, that, “It’s all about the maps that make sense and do not overtly politicize the situation.” Sure, the maps have to equalize population among the districts and, in Kansas, they don’t usually need to involve unusual shapes. The process may not be “overtly” political, but it’s hard to deny that splitting Douglas County, one of the most Democratic counties in the state, between two congressional districts could help Republicans hold onto seats in those districts.
Based on new U.S. Census figures, the 3rd District, which includes Johnson County, Wyandotte County and part of Douglas County, will have to be reduced this year. If all of Douglas County moves into the 2nd District, there might be enough Democrats in Douglas and Shawnee counties to influence an election. Another idea Hensley said had been floated — the one that drew O’Neal’s “conspiracy theory” label — was to find a way to put Wyandotte County in the 1st District, put all of Douglas County in the 3rd and keep Shawnee in the 2nd, thereby preventing the formation of a significant Democratic voting block in any district.
Whether it’s “overt” or not, there’s no denying the politicized nature of this process. The only way to reduce or eliminate the political influence in redistricting is to take it out of the hands of partisan legislators and into the hands of a non-partisan independent commission. A few other states have done it. Kansas has tried to do it a couple of times, but — not surprisingly — members of the majority party in the Legislature didn’t move the proposals forward.
Probably the only way such a plan ever would gain traction in the state would be through a groundswell of support from the Kansas electorate that forces legislators to let go of this political perk. It’s too late for this decade, but there’s always 2021.