Kansas Democratic leaders’ warnings about GOP mischief-making in redistricting seem premature at best, paranoid at worst. But it’s not a bad thing to call now for both the process and the resulting new maps to be fair, and to point out that Kansas still would be better off joining the 13 states with independent, nonpartisan redistricting.
Republicans control the governorship and both chambers of the Legislature, so they have a natural advantage in the process to redraw districts for Congress, the state House, the state Senate and the State Board of Education to reflect the 2010 census numbers. The maps will be finalized by the 2012 Legislature.
While in Wichita for Tuesday’s first in a series of meetings of the Legislature’s special committee on redistricting, Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, and House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, sounded the alarm to The Eagle editorial board about some of the ideas being floated, including a wacky one that would add decidedly urban Wyandotte County to the already huge, heavily rural 1st Congressional District. Hensley and Davis also suspect Republicans will redraw the 2nd and 3rd districts to try to split and further weaken Democrats in Topeka and Lawrence.
Plus, conservative Republicans may use the process to try to win their family feud, targeting moderate GOP incumbents in the House and especially the moderate-controlled Senate. House Speaker Mike O’Neal, R-Hutchinson, who took the unusual step of running his chamber’s redistricting himself, failed to name a single moderate Republican to the committee. (On Wednesday he accused the Democratic leaders of pushing a conspiracy theory.)
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In any case, the new districts need to make sense and serve democracy, not aim to further dilute Democratic voting strength, protect incumbents and guarantee GOP control as far as the eye can see. It will be a particular concern if the new districts diminish the electoral chances for minority legislative candidates in Wichita and elsewhere.
If Republicans overreach, they will risk inviting another court fight — one almost canceled the 2002 primary — and demonstrating again why Kansas needs to adopt Iowa’s nonpartisan model. When Attorney General Derek Schmidt was in the state Senate, he argued as recently as 2009 for a system that would let an independent, nonpartisan entity draw the maps, which would then go to lawmakers for up-or-down votes. Schmidt has said the status quo invites “hyperpartisanship, legislative bitterness and personal animosity.”
A study released last year by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg found that states with nonpartisan redistricting average 20 percent fewer uncontested state legislative races and have smaller margins of victory.
As Davis told the editorial board, “You get better government when you’ve got more competitive races.”
As redistricting proceeds this time, Kansans need to watch closely and be heard.
Of course, if Kansas doesn’t do more soon to check its rural depopulation and accelerate its overall population growth, a decade from now it will be debating how to redraw four congressional districts into three.