June 16, 2021
Lawrence, US 94 F
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Convening Kansas redistricting town halls before Census data in hand: Efficient or inept?

TOPEKA — Kansas lawmakers organizing upcoming work to redraw legislative and congressional district boundaries are wrestling with decisions about whether to begin a series of town hall meetings before arrival in September of detailed population numbers.

State legislators crafting these Kansas districts a decade ago met with the public in 14 cities from July to October 2011 and had benefit of precise population data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Population information available during those town halls showed declines in 77 of the 105 counties, despite an overall statewide rise of 6.1% during the prior decade. It meant more political power would be drawn into urban areas.

House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, urged the redistricting advisory group Monday to proceed with town halls in 2021 without access to the comparable population reports due to Census Bureau delays. Insights from the meetings can still be useful to the 2022 Legislature as it develops updated districts for the Kansas House, Kansas Senate, U.S. House and Kansas Board of Education, he said.

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“I wonder, if we wait until the end of September, if we even have enough time to do all the meetings?” Hawkins said.

Sen. Rick Wilborn, the McPherson Republican and vice president of the Senate, said walking into town halls on redistricting in Pittsburg, Wichita, Dodge City, Colby, Manhattan, Topeka, Leavenworth or anywhere else without the right information could be a mistake.

“The concern with going early is we’ll be confronted with a lot of questions and suggestions as it relates to the population change,” he said. “We won’t have it before us and we’ll look almost inept going forward until we get that data.”

There’s no justification to proceed with conversations with Kansans on reapportionment until arrival of county-by-county population totals in September, said House Democratic leader Tom Sawyer, of Wichita.

“It’s hard to do the public hearings until you at least know that,” Sawyer said.

Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said a portion of the gatherings could occur before delivery of the Census Bureau reports and a portion could occur after. At the meeting Monday in the Capitol, the advisory panel put off decisions on timing of town halls as well as plans for the number of House and Senate members serving on the redistricting committees during the 2022 session.

The objective is to complete the redistricting process well ahead of the primary election in August 2022, but the possibility exists the Legislature could fail to reach agreement on the four maps.

In 2012, the Legislature dabbled in reapportionment from January to May but failed to close a deal before adjourning in May. The task fell — for the first time in Kansas history — to a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court that issued the maps June 7, 2012. About one-third of state House and Senate districts ended up with multiple-incumbent races in August of that year.

Kansas law calls for the Legislature to pass and for a governor to sign new maps every decade. Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, who is seeking re-election, recommended formation of a nonpartisan commission to handle redrawing of districts. GOP leaders in the Legislature ignored Kelly’s suggestion.

The district mapping process will certainly remain a charged political event because the majority party — Republicans have two-thirds advantages in the House and Senate — can leverage their numbers to create maps beneficial to Republicans and detrimental to Democrats.

For example, redrawing the 3rd congressional district in Wyandotte, Johnson and Miami counties held by U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids could make it more challenging for the Democrat to win re-election. One option would be to shift some of Davids’ Democrat votes in Wyandotte County to the largely rural and Republican 1st District held by GOP U.S. Rep. Tracey Mann, but not enough to make a difference in outcome of Mann’s re-election bid.

The four U.S. House districts — Kansas avoided losing one of its four seats — would have about 734,500 people each.

Masterson, the Senate president, said he was curious whether the Legislature could approve new congressional maps designed to sustain the equalization mandate for a long as possible. The idea behind the question was whether past and projected growth in Johnson County could be taken into account when deciding how to carve up the Kansas City metropolitan area among the 1st, 2nd and 3rd congressional districts.

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“That’s what strikes me at the federal level,” Masterson said. “If you set it at this date, all you know is you’re good at that date and it gets further and further off the further you go.”

Jason Long, who works in the Legislature’s bill-writing office of revisor of statutes, said court precedent indicated state legislative districts could have a plus or minus population variance of 5% from precise equality.

He said legislatures weren’t allowed latitude to anticipate population shifts when forming congressional boundaries. Any deviation from absolute equality on congressional maps must be thoroughly justified, he said, but an important goal of the process was keeping communities of interest together and avoiding dilution of minority voting strength.

“You don’t have weird overarching, you know, regions wrapping around. So, they’re more compact and contiguous,” Long said. “The numbers will be nonequal by the time you get to the next Census.”

Joanna Dolan, of the Legislature’s research division, said the Census Bureau had pegged Kansas population at 2,937,880, which was an 84,762 increase from 2010. That change surpassed population projections made a decade ago that postulated Kansas might expand by 60,000, she said.

The new total means a Kansas House district could contain 23,500 people, while a Kansas Senate district could include 73,500, she said. Each of the 10 state Board of Education districts are comprised of four complete Kansas Senate districts.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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