One of the most contentious processes in politics is beginning in Kansas: redrawing the lines of our U.S. House, state House, state Senate and Kansas State Board of Education districts.
After each census, every state must redraw its legislative boundaries to ensure a roughly equal population. An equal population can often hide big inequalities between districts, though, which is often the point.
There is great power in redistricting. Voter-registration data and sophisticated mapping software allow districts to be drawn with specific levels of party identification, age ranges and voting histories. Research has shown that it is possible to pack districts with party loyalists and make competitive districts safe with the change of a few neighborhoods. The widespread availability of the software means alternative proposals will be numerous, too.
Every member of the Legislature will have a stake in the redistricting process because every district boundary could change, exposing some candidates to more competition, shielding others, and in some cases making districts disappear altogether.
For the 2012 redistricting round, Kansas' issues will run east-west. The growth of the eastern part of the state has offset declines on the western side of the state, meaning that districts and therefore power will shift eastward.
Drawing a line north to south down the middle of the state would show 13 Senate districts west of the state's midpoint, leaving 27 to the east. If one or two more districts get taken away from the west, there will be a nearly 3-to-1 advantage in the state Senate for the eastern part of the state.
Democrats have their own fearful moments to come, too. The process is controlled by the Republican Legislature, with House Speaker Mike O'Neal, R-Hutchinson, putting himself in charge of the committee that initially will redraw the district lines. With strong GOP majorities winning in 2010, O'Neal may decide to push for a plan that would pack more Republican voters into Democratic state Senate districts in an effort to complete the conservative makeover begun in last year's election.
Within the GOP is where the core of the fight will happen. The 2000 redistricting session largely was a fight between the center-right and polar-alliance Republicans. Because the Kansas Senate was where the more conservative elements of the House Republicans' agenda went to die in 2011, conservative Republicans surely will want to pack the Senate with further-right partisans, and the new district map undoubtedly will reflect that goal.
The Legislature is responsible for drawing and passing redistricting plans, and the governor has the opportunity to veto them. After a plan passes the Legislature and governor, Attorney General Derek Schmidt must submit it to the Kansas Supreme Court within 15 days. Over the next 30 days, the court will review the plan to ensure that one party is not unfairly hurt or advantaged and that the districts are roughly equal in population.
If the Supreme Court invalidates the plan, the Legislature has 15 more days to propose a new plan, which must again go back to the court. At each step in the process, deals will be made and feelings will be hurt.
Redistricting isn't the most exciting thing to follow for most people, but the elections they influence are. The research clearly tells us that the best way to ensure safe or competitive legislative districts is to design them that way.