Proposed Kansas redistricting maps clear Senate, with Gov. Laura Kelly, courts waiting in the wings

·6 min read
Sen. Rick Wilborn, R-McPherson, listens to floor speeches on a proposed set of congressional maps approved Friday in the Kansas Senate.
Sen. Rick Wilborn, R-McPherson, listens to floor speeches on a proposed set of congressional maps approved Friday in the Kansas Senate.

The Kansas Senate approved a set of Republican-authored congressional lines Friday on a largely party-line-vote, setting up a potential showdown with Gov. Laura Kelly — and a likely court battle.

The map backed by House and Senate Republican leaders, dubbed "Ad Astra," would most controversially move part of Wyandotte County from the 3rd District into the 2nd District.

To balance out that switch, much of Lawrence, as well as Jackson and Jefferson counties, would leave the 2nd District and move into the 1st District, which runs to the Colorado border, encompassing much of western Kansas.

Whether the finished product will earn a veto from the governor remains to be seen.

Kelly has said she is skeptical of dividing the Kansas City, Mo., metro area but declined to say Friday whether she would ultimately reject the maps, which now heads to the Kansas House for consideration.

"I stand by my firm belief that, when you're doing redistricting, what is important is to keep together communities of interest and ensure you don't disenfranchise blocs of voters," Kelly told reporters after a bill signing in the Statehouse.

Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, told reporters that a veto was expected, however.

"That's been a bit of the assumption from the beginning, that a map doesn't exist that Republicans would pass that (the governor) wouldn't veto," he said.

More: Proposed congressional district maps would have a big impact on Kansas voters. Here's what to know.

Lawmakers trade barbs over transparency of redistricting

A copy of the congressional map proposed Tuesday by House and Senate Republican leaders. It quickly met pushback from Democrats for dividing Wyandotte and Johnson counties.
A copy of the congressional map proposed Tuesday by House and Senate Republican leaders. It quickly met pushback from Democrats for dividing Wyandotte and Johnson counties.

Only one Republican joined Democrats in opposing the maps, potentially shoring up the maps' long-term future if a veto did arrive. Two GOP senators were absent from the vote Friday but Masterson said he expected their support, meaning the chamber would have enough votes to override a veto.

Democrats slammed the map, both for the process that led to the map and the final product itself. The four hours of floor debate was an airing of grievances, dating back to the early days of the redistricting process and a series of public town halls held on the maps.

"What is the rush? Why are these maps being so fast-tracked?" asked Sen. Ethan Corson, D-Fairway. "Why do we need to vote out these maps on Jan. 21? Why is the majority party so afraid of giving the pubic, who have to live under these maps for the next decade, adequate time to provide input, adequate time to receive and analyze the underlying data?"

Sen. Ethan Corson, D-Fairway, speaks on the Senate floor Friday in opposition of proposed Congressional redistricting maps introduced by Republican leaders.
Sen. Ethan Corson, D-Fairway, speaks on the Senate floor Friday in opposition of proposed Congressional redistricting maps introduced by Republican leaders.

But Masterson said time was of the essence in order for the maps to be passed in time to ensure the filing deadlines for congressional races remained unaffected.

"The longer we go, the shorter you know what district you are even voting in. ... I'm trying to give us as long of a runway as possible," he said.

More: As legislators embark on redistricting effort, Kansas' political future hangs in the balance

Democrats argue maps waters down northeast Kansas' ‘identity’

The chief objections from Democrats continued to center on the decision to divide Wyandotte County along Interstate 70, a move critics believe will dilute the power of Black and Hispanic voters in the Kansas City, Kan., area.

The 3rd District currently has the lowest percentage of white residents of the four districts, largely due to the diversity of Wyandotte County. Under "Ad Astra," however, it would have the second-highest percentage of residents who are white.

Republicans have argued the move is a sensible one, as it pairs those voters with minority communities in Topeka.

"It strengthens their voice in the 2nd District," Sen. Rick Wilborn, R-McPherson, said. "There will be more in the 2nd."

Michael Li, senior counsel for Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, a legal nonprofit focused on voting and election-related issues, said it is not necessarily an apples-to-apples comparison, however.

Voters of color have a viable path to working with like-minded white voters to elect a representative of their choosing in the 3rd District. That path is narrower in the 2nd, which U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner, R-Kan., won handedly in 2020.

"There's a bit of realpolitik that sort of goes in there," Li said.

Democrats also objected to how the map treated northeast Kansas. The map lumps Lawrence with western Kansas, a move Republicans defended as part of a desire to pair the University of Kansas and Kansas State in the same district.

But Sen. Jeff Pittman, D-Leavenworth, said similar consideration was not given to pairing the state's two largest military institutions, Fort Leavenworth and Fort Riley, in the same district.

"We're wringing our hands on how we slice up northeast Kansas," Pittman said. "We're putting all the focus on Wyandotte (County), Lawrence and pulling them into all the other districts. CD2 doesn't have an identity in this new map. Northeast Kansas has an identity."

A slate of other maps were offered as amendments, with all falling short.

The most notable were a series of proposals from Sen. Dennis Pyle, R-Hiawatha, who criticized the "Ad Astra" map as running roughshod over rural Kansas by drawing them in with urban areas in each proposed district.

"I'm wondering whose interest this map is being drawn in," Pyle said.

More: Residents, advocates decry proposed Kansas congressional maps as lawmakers advance GOP-authored proposal

Redistricting fight heads to Kansas House

Senate Majority Leader Larry Alley, R-Winfield, left, and Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, listen to floor speeches on a proposed set of congressional maps approved Friday in the Kansas Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Larry Alley, R-Winfield, left, and Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, listen to floor speeches on a proposed set of congressional maps approved Friday in the Kansas Senate.

The map now goes to the Kansas House, where legislators have moved at a slower pace on redistricting.

Two additional maps were introduced by Democrats in the House Redistricting Committee on Friday and an end product won't be voted on until next week.

Even Republicans have acknowledged the matter will ultimately be litigated in court. assuming the maps are ultimately enacted over a veto from Gov. Laura Kelly.

And the maps have caught the attention of national voting groups, as well as political organizations.

"This map is a blatant partisan gerrymander, and demonstrates that Kansas Republicans have decided to ignore both the will of the people and decades of precedent," said Kelly Burton, chair of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.

Li said there was reason to believe a challenge would have merit, though the bar has been raised for federal justices to strike down maps.

A lawsuit under the Voting Rights Act is difficult in Kansas and a challenge would likely hinge on whether lawmakers gave too much or too little consideration to the issue of race in drafting maps.

"There's a clear harm," Li said. "Whether there is an available remedy is a different question."

It remains unclear whether a lawsuit is possible in state courts, though the Kansas Constitution doesn't address congressional redistricting. A lawsuit there would likely be predicated on whether the maps follow guidelines legislators themselves approved to orient the redistricting process.

Similar moves have been pursued in other states.

"It is certainly something that people around the country are looking a lot more closely, just because there are so few paths to winning relief in federal court," Li said.

Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at abahl@gannett.com or by phone at 443-979-6100.

This article originally appeared on Topeka Capital-Journal: Kansas redistricting maps advance, but unclear if Gov. Kelly will sign