The speed with which candidates had to respond to new legislative and congressional district lines handed down late Thursday made the process a little chaotic, but the end result wasn’t all bad for the state and its residents.
The new lines drawn by three federal judges after legislators deadlocked on the process was the political equivalent of that old children’s game, Fruit Basket Upset. After setting political considerations aside, judges produced legislative and congressional districts for the state that were far different from the districts that had been engineered for decades to protect incumbent officeholders, particularly those in the majority party. Just like that, dozens of state legislators found they were no longer living in their districts or that one or two other incumbents had joined them in those districts. In about 25 House and Senate districts, there were no incumbents.
Political leaders described the new district maps in a number of ways: disruptive, confusing and simply “a mess.” Yet, for Kansas voters, the events of the last few days also have been a democratic breath of fresh air. The judges’ maps stirred up Kansas politics in an arguably positive way.
The shake-up opened the door to dozens of candidates who may not otherwise have run because they saw little chance of winning against an incumbent officeholder. It forced many incumbents to re-evaluate their constituencies and rethink their political futures. Some changed residences to stick with old constituencies or seek out new ones; others decided it was simply time to step down. Those who decided to make the race will have to prove their worth to a new voter base rather than riding their incumbent record and name recognition to an easy victory.
In recent years, dozens of Kansas legislators were elected without opposition even from the other parties. A few incumbents — including two from Lawrence, Rep. Paul Davis and Rep. Tom Sloan — have that luxury this year, but far more — including Rep. Barbara Ballard and Sen Marci Franciso — have competition from the opposing party, their own party, or both. Voters will have many reasons to vote in the Aug. 7 primary, which will narrow the field in dozens of legislative races.
As often has been noted in this space, contested elections force candidates to articulate and clarify their positions on many issues and allow voters to become better informed about the people they elect to represent them. They allow constituents to have a real choice.
The Legislature’s failure to complete its redistricting duties this year certainly was deplorable, and in some ways, many of those legislators now are paying the price. Rather than predictable, uncompetitive races that return most incumbents to office, the state is getting an election season filled with interesting contests and meaningful choices. That’s a big win for Kansas voters.