Topeka Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach publicly warned legislators Monday that a potential constitutional crisis is brewing because the state's political boundaries haven't been adjusted yet, but he was wary of a proposal to postpone the state's primary election.
Kobach, a Republican and Kansas' chief elections official, said he worries that some members of the GOP-controlled Legislature believe that the Kansas Supreme Court can redraw legislative districts if lawmakers fail to do so.
But the Kansas Constitution says only that the high court reviews proposals approved by legislators and determines whether they are valid or whether lawmakers must try again.
A bitter split among conservative and moderate Republicans has prevented the Senate from approving legislation that redraws members' districts. The House has approved a bipartisan plan for adjusting state representatives' districts, but it has stalled in the Senate. Both chambers have approved a congressional redistricting plan and killed the other chamber's proposal.
Attorney General Derek Schmidt, also a Republican, already has warned legislators and GOP Gov. Sam Brownback that the state may have to delay its primary election if redistricting issues aren't resolved quickly. He said the state also may face legal costs if residents sue because there's no agreement on new congressional districts.
Legislators return Wednesday from their annual spring break, and the session wrap-up could last until mid-May. But Kobach said problems will arise if new district boundaries aren't approved by May 10, which is why he held a news conference — to "sound the alarm bell."
"The clock is ticking, and they have to act quickly when they come back into session," he said. "This is a real potential for crisis here."
Legislators must redraw their districts and the state's four congressional districts to account for shifts in population over the past decade.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said legislators agree that they need to move quickly, and he's hoping that they will resolve redistricting issues next week.
"Kobach has entered the process here at a fairly late date," Hensley said. "If he was at all concerned about us dragging our feet, he probably should have made a statement, you know, over a month ago."
Kansas law says that if they don't complete redistricting by May 10, the candidate filing deadline will be postponed from June 1 to June 11.
Even if legislators finish their work on time, the state constitution gives the attorney general and the Supreme Court up to 45 days — until June 24 — to review plans for new state House and Senate districts.
Kobach noted that if the primary election date remains Aug. 7 as scheduled, federal law will require Kansas to distribute ballots to military personnel by June 23. Kobach said county election officials will need at least a week of preparation ahead of that deadline.
Some legislators already are anticipating a need to postpone the primary. The House Appropriations Committee agreed last week to sponsor a bill delaying the election until Aug. 28 if new political boundaries aren't set by May 15.
But Kobach doesn't like the idea, saying it's likely to confuse candidates and voters and also will shorten the general election campaign.
"Moving it at the last minute, as a last-ditch resort to avoid violating federal law, would be problematic," he said. "Logistically, it would be difficult, and I just think, democratically, it's difficult for people running for office and for constituents."
In a letter to Brownback and legislative leaders, Schmidt raised the possibility that the state would be forced to postpone its primary. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the letter on Monday. The letter, dated Friday, also notes that if there's no agreement on congressional districts, lawsuits are likely.
In 1982, when the GOP-controlled Legislature approved a plan, then-Gov. John Carlin, a Democrat, vetoed it. Two groups of residents sued, and a panel of three federal judges drew the new lines. But the state was forced to pay their legal bills, amounting to about $27,000.
Schmidt noted that an Illinois case from 2000 resulted in legal bills of about $7 million.