Politics & Government

Expert: Kansas political maps likely to be drawn by judges for second decade in a row

The next redrawing of Kansas political districts is likely to end up where the last one did – in federal court, a Wichita State University political scientist said Wednesday.

Conservative and moderate Republicans couldn’t pass a political boundary map in 2012 when their party controlled both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office, said Neal Allen, chairman of the political science department at Wichita State University.

And it will get more complicated now that Democrat Laura Kelly is governor, he said.

Voters have sent mixed signals in the last two years. Next year is the pivotal once-a-decade election to select the lawmakers who will redraw political boundaries for state offices and Congress.

Allen has identified 10 of the 40 state Senate districts with conservative Republican incumbents where voters chose President Trump in 2016, then turned around two years later and went to Kelly by at least 8 percentage points.

For example, Trump won by 8 percentage points in Senate President Susan Wagle’s Wichita-based 10th District. But the same district went for Kelly by 14.

The difference was about as stark in Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning’s 8th District, based in Overland Park.

Trump won the district by 1 percentage point, but Kelly took it by 20.

This slide shows 10 Republican Kansas Senators whose constituents went for Republican Donald Trump in 2016 and Democratic governor candidate Laura Kelly in 2018. Dion Lefler The Wichita Eagle

Every 10 years the Census publishes new population numbers and state legislatures or redistricting commissions across the country have to redraw their legislative districts.

That’s one of the most important things legislators do, because where the lines are drawn can cement a partisan advantage for a decade.

“A year ending in zero is a really bad year to do poorly if you’re a political party,” Allen said.

It’s called gerrymandering, named after a Massachusetts politician who drew up a lizard-shaped district to favor his party in 1812.

The last time Kansas redistricted, it went poorly.

A panel of federal judges had to be appointed and ended up drawing Kansas political boundaries, because the House and Senate Republicans were unable to agree on a common set of maps in time for the 2012 election.

Allen said he sees that scenario brewing up again this time around, but with the added complication of Democratic involvement.

“The Democrats are going to have at least one seat at the (redistricting) table with the governorship,” he said. “And the odds of the Democrats getting both houses of the Legislature with a stable majority are near zero, so we’re likely to have split party control.”

That division “either makes for a compromise or, as more and more likely these days, it sends things to courts – and that’s where we’re probably heading in Kansas.”

Allen made his comments at a Wednesday conference sponsored by the WSU Center for Economic Development and Business Research.

State Rep. Henry Helgerson, D-Wichita, attended that conference and said he’s more optimistic than Allen that the Legislature will come up with a way to keep redistricting out of court.

Helgerson has served in both the House and Senate during an off-and-on legislative career going back to 1983.

“If I look back to when you’ve had mixed control of the House, Senate and … the governorship, it’s just as likely that you eventually come to some kind of compromise,” he said. “So I think that’s just as likely as opposed to having it in court.”