Late on June 7, just four days before the June 11 filing deadline for candidates, a three-judge federal panel hit the “reset” button on state legislative districts in Kansas. The federal court’s redrawing of congressional, State Board of Education, and state House and Senate maps came after Kansas lawmakers failed to do so before adjourning.
The federal court’s actions created a number of winners and losers.
The big winners from the Legislature’s fiasco are the federal judges and Kansas voters. The three judges deserve high marks for the way they conducted themselves.
The judges rightfully took the necessary time to gather relevant testimony, ignoring the advice of Secretary of State Kris Kobach to limit it. After hearing the facts, the judges acted decisively to rectify the Legislature’s abdication of its responsibility.
Their order did leave only four days for the parties to recruit candidates to run, but the Legislature is to blame for the compressed timeline, not the federal judges.
Voters are also big winners. Compared with both the existing district configurations and all of the proposed new district line boundaries, the federal judges’ maps went the extra mile to create compact and equally populated districts that protect communities of interest and minority voters. Most districts now look like shapes we might recognize. Moreover, they don’t arbitrarily divide urban and suburban communities to advantage the re-election of incumbent legislators.
The district line boundaries have not shifted this much since the mid-1960s, when the U.S. Supreme Court enforced one-man, one-vote principles on all state legislatures, including Kansas.
Voters would not have been such big winners but for the candidate recruitment activities of the Republican and Democratic state and local party organizations. Faced with severe time constraints – only 31/2 days in reality – the parties and their affiliated groups did a masterly job filling candidate slates.
The actions of the federal judges did not abate the intra-party strife among the establishment Republicans and the socially and economically conservative Republicans. In the Kansas House, 56 of the 125 districts will have a Republican primary. By comparison, in the 1990s there were typically fewer than 12 contested GOP House primaries. In the Kansas Senate, 29 of 40 districts will have GOP primaries, compared with a maximum of five in the 1990s.
The big losers were numerous incumbent legislators and the Republican leadership from both legislative chambers. In drawing the new districts, the federal judges didn’t just “subordinate” the legislative directive to avoid pairing incumbents into a single district whenever possible; they ignored it.
The judges created 25 open seats (no incumbent legislator from either party) in the state House and four open seats in the state Senate. Based on the candidate filings and retirements, professor Ed Flentje at Wichita State University estimates that the state House will have no fewer than 50 new members, while the state Senate will have no fewer than seven new members.
Over the course of the next two months, campaign money will flow freely into the contested GOP primary races, especially in the state Senate primaries. Whatever the outcome of these primaries, the federal judges effectively pushed the reset button for Kansas’ state legislative districts. In so doing, they have already fundamentally altered the political topography of the state.