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Sharon Brett: Redistricting efforts got off to a rough start, but we can still ensure a fair process for all (Column)

Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. Occasionally, we’ll also pick up columns from other nearby news outlets. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Sharon Brett is legal director at the ACLU of Kansas.

As the once-in-a-decade redistricting process begins for our state, the people of Kansas deserve a process that is fair, transparent, and protects our sacred right to vote.

We haven’t gotten off to a great start. This first round of town halls appeared out of nowhere, were limited to 75 minutes, and were scheduled seemingly without regard for working people, the disabled, or non-English speakers.

Luckily, we are still early in the process. Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, has suggested he’d support more town halls. Let’s make that official. We need another round of town halls because we now have census data allowing for better questions and more detailed solutions. Community members, particularly those living in areas of significant demographic change, deserve increased opportunities to offer testimony. Armed with data, people are now in a better position to advocate for sensible community solutions.

We also need better town halls. We need ways for people to participate in this process remotely, during non-work hours, and, with COVID- 19’s delta variant looming, without congregating indoors. Kansans shouldn’t have to choose between civic participation and risking their health.

Let’s be clear. Elected officials have an obligation to ensure fair and equal representation for everyone, upholding the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection and complying with the requirements of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Historically, however, instead of drawing congressional and state legislative district boundaries that accurately reflect their population, many states have drawn maps that are not fair.

That’s what we need to prevent.

We need to begin with the end in mind by preserving community of interest guidelines as much as possible. Reapportionment is inevitable to some degree because of population growth, especially in northeast Kansas. But that isn’t a license to draw boundaries in an effort to overturn the results of past elections, or rig future ones.

Voters should choose their politicians — not the other way around.

Lawmakers must also devise a fair solution to “prison gerrymandering,” the practice of counting incarcerated people as residents of the counties where they’re incarcerated, as opposed to their actual homes. This practice simultaneously dilutes urban voting strength and artificially inflates rural voting power.

The consequences of political gamesmanship in the redistricting process are severe. Not only does redistricting play a role in congressional boundary design for national, state and local offices, it also affects our daily lives, including how financial resources are allocated for schools, hospitals, roads and more.

Improper redistricting results in unequal representation in our voting districts, the dilution of the full voting power of minority voters, and fractured communities. Communities of color, in particular, have faced significant obstacles to meaningful participation in the political process, including obstacles that begin with redistricting.

Gerrymandering can be challenged in state and federal court. And we have seen what happens when the state makes bad choices in this regard: litigation, with the costs passed on to taxpayers. That was precisely what happened when then-Secretary of State Kris Kobach insisted on defending his discriminatory proof of citizenship law. The ACLU sued, and won. The state is currently defending itself against yet another lawsuit regarding voter suppression bills passed in the last legislative session.

The ACLU of Kansas and other national groups are watching this process closely. We — and the people of Kansas — urge our lawmakers to take actions that protect, rather than impede, our sacred right to civic participation.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here. Find how to submit your own commentary to The Lawrence Times here.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus 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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