Opinion: Redistricting might break some taboos
Every 10 years, districts for Congress, the state Legislature, state school board and local offices must be redrawn based on the latest U.S. Census. The 2020 Census numbers were recently released, and we already know one thing: There will no longer be a Kansas City-area district that incorporates all of Johnson and Wyandotte counties.
Here in Kansas, the Kansas City-area 3rd Congressional District has once again gained population, while the rural “Big First” has lost people. The 3rd must shed people and the Big First must gain them, all shuffled through the 2nd District, which lies in between and has also lost population. All districts are to be of nearly equal population, with only 0.5% allowable variation. Removing the small piece of Miami County (Louisburg) currently in the 3rd will not be enough. All or part of the other two counties must be moved as well. This will not be popular among supporters of Rep. Sharice Davids who fear a Republican gerrymander to break up that district’s Democratic majority. In fact, former Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle advocates this.
For this column, I drew a number of hypothetical districts using Dave’s Redistricting, an online app that makes it possible for anyone with a computer and some free time to draw their own districts. It is free, but users are encouraged to make voluntary contributions. I have no financial interest in the project. The maps I made can be viewed on my blog: moksline.blogspot.com. And I also did this for Missouri.
For my own proposed map, I ended up doing what was once considered unthinkable in Kansas politics: I split Johnson County. I tried splitting Wyandotte County, but to rebalance population that way would require me to split the city of Kansas City in half, whereas the people of most communities prefer to remain “whole” within a single district. By splitting Johnson County instead, I was able to keep all cities in the county whole. I moved the outlying, exurban communities of De Soto, Gardner, Edgerton, and Spring Hill into the 2nd District along with rural, unincorporated parts of the county. The rest of Johnson County I kept together with Kansas City in the 3rd.
If Kansas Republicans do seek to gerrymander Wyandotte County, they will not put it in the adjoining 2nd District. The 2nd already includes Lawrence and Topeka, so adding Kansas City would make that a Democratic-majority district. Instead, a GOP gerrymander would have to bring the Big First all the way to the Missouri line, wrapping around the 2nd and reaching down to put Kansas City in the same district as rural western Kansas. The current 3rd District is not a majority-minority district, but it does have plenty of diversity. If it is broken up in this way, court challenges are possible. The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to intervene in cases of partisan gerrymandering but kept open the door to those involving racial gerrymandering — particularly when they dilute votes from people of color.
Keeping several outlying communities in Johnson County whole while moving them into the 2nd District avoids these difficulties. It also prevents an ungainly Missouri-to-Colorado Big First. Readers are encouraged not to take my word for it. Try Dave’s for yourself and draw your own, proposed districts. Ultimately, the Kansas Legislature will draw the final maps — unless they deadlock and let the courts resolve it again. In the meantime, Kansas already has three Republican-majority districts. Can they resist the temptation to get greedy for more?
— Michael A. Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University.