The great redistricting debacle of 2012 might have moved last week from the Statehouse to federal court in Kansas City, Kan., but the spectacle of inept grown-ups squabbling over turf and power was no less embarrassing. Kansas desperately needs to fix this before 2020, preferably by handing off the process to an independent commission.
Because of the Legislature’s inability to finalize even one of the four maps required of it during a session that lasted 99 days, it’s all up to the three federal judges. During last week’s trial, they heard testimony reflecting the views of the case’s 29 parties and sounded ready to try their own mapmaking. Secretary of State Kris Kobach, one of two defendants, says new maps need to be ready by June 20 to avoid a postponement of the Aug. 7 primary.
Where most states’ struggles with redistricting pit one political party against another, the one in Kansas is all about the split between conservative Republicans, who control the House and governor’s office, and moderate Republicans, who control the Senate.
There is plenty of shame to go around.
Senators get a share for proposing maps to protect moderate incumbents by carving out their would-be conservative GOP challengers.
So do House leaders, who broke tradition by meddling in the redrawing of the other chamber’s districts.
Also among the guilty parties are provocateurs in the business and pro-life communities, who tried to use the process to shift Senate control to candidates more likely to favor their causes.
Gov. Sam Brownback also shares much of the blame. He said, “I never submitted a map to the Legislature nor have I indicated a preference for any specific map.” But his staff members were deeply involved in drawing multiple maps and exerted their influence as maps were being debated and voted on. He wants the Senate more reliably on his side, and clearly saw redistricting as one sure way to get it there.
With its inaction, the Legislature inadvertently demonstrated why a bipartisan redistricting commission is needed. Under a plan proposed by Senate leaders, the majority and minority leader in each chamber would appoint one member each to the commission, with a fifth member selected by the commission itself who would serve as chairman. The Legislature would approve the commission’s recommended maps with an up-or-down vote, and no amendments allowed.
Other states have different models to consider for an independent, impartial redistricting commission. Kansas needs to pick one next session, then put it in place.
Federal judges have better things to do than finish the job of lawmakers debilitated by partisanship. And whatever the judges decide on redistricting this time, the Legislature has forfeited any right to claim that it can handle the task.