Opinion: 10 years later, redistricting still broken
It is almost time to redistrict Kansas. This means using 2020 Census data to create new districts for the Kansas House, Kansas Senate and U.S. Congress. Ten years ago, the process was a mess. Unfortunately, no reforms were put in place afterward. The detailed Census data will be ready later this year, but will lawmakers be ready?
In 2012, Kansas won the dubious distinction of being the last state in the U.S. to complete its congressional districts. Despite having only four to draw, the Kansas Legislature could not agree on a map, forcing the federal courts to intervene and draw the districts themselves. By contrast, California’s nonpartisan citizens commissions had already completed its first set of districts drawn under a new system championed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — 53 U.S. House districts, plus the ones for both houses of the state General Assembly.
What was the problem here? First, Kansas has an archaic system in which the state Legislature draws the maps with no oversight except the governor’s veto. Not only do legislators draw the congressional districts, they also draw the ones for the Statehouse itself — a classic “fox guarding the chicken house” scenario. Kansas’ Legislature is only in session for about four months per year (January-April) meaning that this will require either a special session or doing it at the last minute. By early 2022, many other states will have already finalized their districts.
Many states do this better. In Iowa, a bipartisan commission draws the districts. The commission has an equal number of Democrats and Republicans; they cannot look at political data, and they cannot split counties on the congressional map. Also, the state legislature cannot redraw its maps. In Missouri, the General Assembly redraws congressional districts, but a balanced, bipartisan commission redraws the ones for the General Assembly itself. As in Iowa, that commission has an equal number of appointments from Democrats and Republicans. In Missouri, ties are broken by a three-judge panel. Missouri also has its veto session in October, which makes this a good time to schedule a special session at about the same time to begin the redistricting process. By contrast, Kansas’ veto session is immediately after the regular session and is popularly referred to as the “wrapup session” instead.
In 2012, Kansas legislators deadlocked because they were worried about moving Manhattan from the 2nd to the “Big First” district. Lawmakers did not want firebrand Congressman Tim Huelskamp responsible for federal funding to the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) project, which brought substantial money and jobs into Manhattan. Manhattan got moved anyway, but by the courts, not by the Legislature. Hueslkamp and former 2nd District Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins are no longer in office, but the court-drawn districts remain.
With no reforms to the redistricting process, Kansas may face another mess. To be fair, legislative committees will of course have hearings around the state and review many drafts, but the maps may still end up getting finalized at the last minute, on the floors of the House and Senate. Also, partisan Republican influencers from out of state may force Kansas Republicans to ram through congressional maps splitting up the state in weird ways, particularly Johnson County. This would be an attempt to remove Democratic Congresswoman Sharice Davids from office. Democrats gerrymander too, but that does not make it right.
Voters need to hold Kansas politicians accountable during this next round of redistricting. Not only that, the process itself needs to be reformed.
— Michael A. Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University.