Douglas County is getting the short end of the redistricting stick in two ways, local officials on Friday told key legislators who will be re-drawing political district maps.
First, Douglas County was split between two congressional districts in 2002, and, secondly, the county suffers by losing population in a census adjustment that is unlike any in the United States.
“We would like to be made whole,” Douglas County Commissioner Nancy Thellman said to the Special Committee on Redistricting.
The public hearing at the Dole Institute of Politics was not far from the dividing line in Lawrence between the 2nd and 3rd U.S. House districts.
Prior to 2002, Douglas County was in the 3rd district, which also includes Johnson and Wyandotte counties.
But Republicans in charge of the Legislature split Douglas County with the western part going to the 2nd and the eastern part remaining in the 3rd.
Democrats claim the split was done to reduce the number of Democratic voters in the 3rd, which then was represented by a Democrat.
But on Friday, Republicans joined Democrats, saying it made more sense to unite Douglas County and place it totally in the 2nd or 3rd districts.
Jim Mullins, a former Douglas County Republican Party chairman, said it was difficult for political parties to run elections with the county split in two.
Douglas County Commissioner Mike Gaughan, interim Lawrence Chamber of Commerce head Hank Booth and others also said it would be less confusing to voters to have the county in one congressional district.
After the meeting, the co-chairs of the redistricting committee, state Sen. Tim Owens, R-Overland Park, and House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, said they had nothing against uniting Lawrence, but that many factors had to be considered before they start proposing district lines.
“I don’t want to make any final decisions until we have heard from everyone,” Owens said.
After every 10-year census, the state Legislature is responsible for redrawing district boundaries for Kansas’ four congressional districts, 165 legislative districts and the 10 state board of education districts.
The lines are drawn to account for population changes so each elected official represents a similar number of people.
The 2010 census showed that the 3rd district experienced significant growth and to be similar in population it must give up more than 50,000 people. The western Kansas-based 1st district must gain a similar amount because of dwindling population.
Another issue of contention in Lawrence is the re-calculation of census figures that allows students to chose their home for redistricting population purposes rather than their campus. Kansas is the only state that does this and it has the effect of reducing the population total of places like Lawrence, home of Kansas University.
Lawrence lost 12,000 people for redistricting purposes, even though these people live in Lawrence most of the year and many are registered to vote in Lawrence.
House Democratic Leader Paul Davis of Lawrence said, “We have an inequitable situation.” Davis and Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew told the committee that this has effect of diluting legislative representation in Lawrence. They said 12,000 people represents about one-half state House district.
But rural legislators pushed back. Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, R-Grinnell, said he picked up 780 population in his vast western Kansas district through the recalculation. And any change to the policy would require an amendment to the State Constitution.
As far as the congressional districts, Democrats claim there is a “D.C. to Topeka Plan” being hatched by Republicans that would move the Democratic stronghold of Kansas City, Kan., in Wyandotte County out of the 3rd district and place it in the 1st.
“Throwing the state’s most urban county into the state’s most rural district, would be a disservice to the people in western Kansas, and a disservice to people in the Kansas City metro area,” Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka said.
Republican leaders indicated they weren’t interested in the proposal, although they didn’t dismiss it entirely. “That map looks very ugly to me,” O’Neal said.
Figuring out where to draw lines to achieve the most equal districts “is like pushing your finger in a balloon,” Owens said. In addition to uniting Lawrence, he said the committee has heard that Manhattan, which is in the 2nd District, doesn’t want to be moved to the 1st and Emporia, which is in the 1st wants to be put in the 2nd.
Davis said a lot of the partisan wrangling over redistricting could be solved by putting the process in the hands of a non-partisan commission.
He said drawing district boundaries is a major concern of every legislator. “That process sometimes and oftentimes taints other issues that the Legislature has to debate,” he said.
The committee will hold several more public hearings. The Legislature will approve a plan during the 2012 session, which starts in January.