It is difficult for the demographic makeup of legislatures to match the overall population. But as Kansas lawmakers work this coming session on drawing new legislative districts, they need to strive to make the Legislature more representative, not less.
As is, all minority racial and ethnic groups, but particularly Latinos, are underrepresented when compared with the state’s 2010 census data, according to an analysis by the Topeka Capital-Journal.
There are only four Latinos in the Kansas House, including Rep. Mario Goico, R-Wichita, and none in the Senate. That totals 2.4 percent of the Legislature, while Latinos account for 10.5 percent of the state’s population.
Asian-Americans are also significantly underrepresented. In fact, there is no predominantly Asian lawmaker, even though Asians make up 2.4 percent of the state’s population.
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African-Americans and Native Americans also are underrepresented, though not as badly. Seven lawmakers, or 4.2 percent of the Legislature, are black – including Reps. Melody McCray-Miller, D-Wichita, and Gail Finney, D-Wichita, and Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita – while 5.9 percent of Kansans are black. One member of the Legislature, or 0.6 percent, is Native American, Rep. Ponka-We Victors, D-Wichita, while 1 percent of the population is.
How legislative districts are drawn can have a significant impact on how many minorities get elected. For example, some states have divided minority neighborhoods among several districts in deliberate attempts to dilute their voting strength. That’s why the U.S. Department of Justice reviews redistricting plans, particularly in states with a history of voter discrimination.
Of course, having equitably drawn districts doesn’t guarantee there will be more minority lawmakers. Minorities may still be outnumbered in some districts. And if minorities don’t run for office, they can’t get elected.
Another key to making the Legislature more representative is to not put up barriers to voting. Unfortunately, Kansas GOP lawmakers pushed through new rules last session requiring citizens to produce a photo identification card in order to vote and, starting next year, to provide a birth certificate in order to register to vote. These changes, which were ostensibly aimed at preventing fraudulent voting (though fraud is virtually nonexistent in Kansas), disproportionately affect minorities.
Having a more representative Legislature (including more women) isn’t just about being fair or following federal law, as important as that is. It also can improve the quality of the legislative debate and, hopefully, the state’s laws.
As Goico told the Capital-Journal, having lawmakers with different backgrounds and opinions creates more synergism. “When you listen to everybody and you try to pick out the best idea,” Goico said, “that’s the best decision you can make.”
For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee