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Release of U.S. Census population data amplifies political anxiety about redistricting

Legislators on town hall tour urged to avoid gerrymandering, partisanship

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Overland Park Republican Rep. Chris Croft, center in mask, said during a Pittsburg town hall on redrawing state political boundaries the process is made more challenging by delays in release of U.S. Census Bureau population data. 

TOPEKA — Kansans marked the U.S. Census Bureau’s release of population data integral to the redistricting process Thursday by pummeling state legislators on a listening tour with demands for new political boundary maps that emphasize community interests rather than partisan aspirations.

The Census statistics illustrated a slowing of population growth rate nationally and expansion of non-white people as a percentage of the country’s inhabitants. The reporting represented where people in the United States were residing April 1, 2020, and offered insights into trends at a national, state and community level relied upon to redraw political district boundaries in Kansas and other states.

Census officials plan to release Sept. 30 more user-friendly versions of the population counts, which left Kansas with 2.93 million residents. Kansas’ 3% growth in the past decade was sufficient to retain all four U.S. House seats, but the continued rural-to-urban shift in population necessitates realignment of voting lines to reflect that transition.

Overland Park Rep. Chris Croft, the GOP chairman of the House Redistricting Committee, defended during a town hall in Pittsburg the decision to pack 14 public-comment sessions into five days prior to examination of the latest U.S. Census data on Kansas.

A representative of the Kansas Legislative Research Department, which conducts behind-the-scenes work on redistricting, said it would take “some time” to extract relevant data on Kansas from the new Census files.

“This time around,” Croft said, “redistricting is a little more challenging. We’ve heard comments about that, with delay of the U.S. Census data. We got that.”

Rep. Tom Burroughs, a Democrat from Kansas City, Kansas, said people attending the town halls and many state legislators would keep pressing for a “fair and transparent” redistricting process.

INFORMED PUBLIC INPUT

The COVID-19 pandemic and an attempt by President Donald Trump to remove unauthorized immigrants from the count delayed completion of the findings for months.

The Kansas Legislature and governor are responsible every 10 years for realigning the state House and Senate, U.S. House and state Board of Education districts to bring about equal representation based on population. The Republican-dominated Legislature and Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly dig deeper into that task when the annual legislative session begins in January. The resulting maps must be reviewed by the Kansas Supreme Court.

Redistricting in Kansas could be complicated by filing of lawsuits. A decade ago, the Legislature failed to reach consensus and the maps were crafted by three federal judges.

There is a sense among people speaking at the redistricting town halls that GOP legislative leaders should authorize further public meetings across Kansas to gather input on the new Census statistics as well as proposed district maps.

“It is important to go about redistricting with impartiality and an opportunity for Kansans to have input,” said Rep. Chuck Schmidt, a Wichita Democrat. “This is difficult to do when we have no information to consider. It is concerning that we have heard members of the Legislature discuss how they can change districts to make the vote more favorable for a certain party. It is your job to put together districts that make sense and are not drawn for political advantage.”

Rep. Jason Probst, a Hutchinson Democrat, said it was unfortunate Kansas was clinging to a “problematic and ripe-for-abuse” system that left politicians to decide boundaries. Each elected official at the Capitol has a vested interest in how lines are set, he said.

“As others have mentioned throughout this tour, I’d encourage us to relinquish our power on this matter and willingly give this to an impartial body to decide. I don’t expect that we will, and absent that, I feel it’s important to publicly recognize that each of us carries a self-interest bias in this process, and that Kansas would be best served by taking every stop possible to remove that barrier to fair and impartial political boundaries based on nothing but population, geography and communities of interest.”

THE DAVIDS FACTOR 

Denise Brodsky, a member of the Reno County Democratic Central Committee, said redistricting ought to avoid ugliness of gerrymandering designed to favor specific candidates. She said Census data would make it evident where changes were needed to maintain equality of populations in communities of Kansas.

“Kansans deserve to elect the leaders who best represent their interest, not the other way around,” she said.

A point of emphasis for the Republican Party when considering 2022 congressional maps has been finding a configuration most damaging to U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, a Democrat who represents the urban district of Wyandotte and Johnson counties. The idea would be for the GOP to craft districts that made it easier for a Republican to defeat Davids while stopping short of threatening the three Republican incumbents — U.S. Rep. Tracey Mann of the 1st District, Jake LaTurner in the 2nd District and Ron Estes in the 4th District.

One option would be to drop a chunk of Democrats from Wyandotte County into the 1st or 2nd districts, which have a stronger Republican base of influence.

“Unfortunately, drawing a district that Sharice cannot win relies heavily on taking an Exacto knife to the KC metro area,” said Stacey Knoell, of Olathe. “Any plan to draw Wyandotte County into, say, the Big First congressional district would have a chilling effect on the African American voting bloc in Wyandotte County.”

That prospect didn’t sit well with Jimmy Beard, a teacher at Garden City High School and a defender of interests of people living in southwest Kansas.

“The people of southwest Kansas deserve elected officials who are dedicated to the interests of southwest Kansas and the people of Wyandotte and Johnson counties deserve elected officials who represent the interests of Wyandotte and Johnson counties. We presently have borders that largely represent this ideal,” he said.

The general idea of gerrymandering was unpopular with other people participating in the Legislature’s town hall meetings on redistricting across the state.

Rodger Nugent, of North Newton, said district boundaries shouldn’t look “like an octopus with multiple tendrils scooping up voters” to please big-government operators.

“I am asking the committee to fairly adjust the districts according to Census data,” said Robert George of Arcadia. “Please, no long, stringy districts. Use second-grade math to divide the districts. It’s not that hard.”

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. 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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