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Wary Kansas Democrats Tell Republicans To 'Keep It Transparent' As They Draw New Political Maps

Initial numbers from the 2020 census show population decline in rural areas of the state, and population growth around the Kansas City area metro and cities like Wichita.
Initial numbers from the 2020 census show population decline in rural areas of the state, and population growth around the Kansas City area metro and cities like Wichita.

Republicans will control the redistricting process in Kansas next year. Right now, they face an uphill battle to convince residents in the suburbs of Kansas City that they won’t gerrymander the maps to supercharge Republican power.

OVERLAND PARK, Kansas — Without a single new boundary line drawn for the congressional and legislative districts, Republicans running redistricting in Kansas find themselves under fire.

Democrats argue that 14 town halls scattered across the state came with too little advance notice — 10 days — while people who crammed into one of those meetings in Johnson County worried that the fix is in.

“It’s almost as if there was a plan to cheat,” said Stacey Knoell, an Olathe resident.

One of the most critical choices with the once-a-decade redrawing of political maps revolves around the state’s 3rd Congressional District in the Kansas City area. For the last quarter century, it’s toggled between Republican and Democrat. In 2018, Democrat Sharice Davids won the congressional seat.

Republicans want that seat back. By drawing the new congressional districts in a way that puts parts of Johnson or Wyandotte counties in other districts, for instance, they could make her re-election nearly impossible. And because they hold a firm grip on the Legislature, Republicans control redistricting.

On Thursday, Knoell and hundreds of other people crowded into an Overland Park community center to weigh in with state lawmakers after Democrats raised alarm bells that Republicans were attempting to freeze citizens out of the process.

The audience tilted heavily Democratic and pressed for a collective wish list. They demanded maps that grouped districts by communities, not something gerrymandered to consolidate power for one political party. They wanted Wyandotte and Johnson counties kept together in a way that kept Davids’ district essentially intact.

“Within the district’s boundaries lies the heart of the Kansas side of the KC metropolitan area,” said Ron Fugate. He wants the Kansas 3rd to remain in a single district and urged lawmakers to “keep it transparent.”

State Rep. Chris Croft, a Republican from Overland Park, chairs the Kansas House redistricting committee. He said that information is what lawmakers came to hear, “but how realistic that is really depends upon the numbers.”

New numbers from the 2020 Census show a decline in rural populations across the state and an increase in the state’s population centers fueled by migration to the Kansas City metro area. Douglas, Leavenworth, Johnson and Wyandotte Counties are all within the top five counties with the greatest population growth.

Kansas’ four congressional districts will need to have roughly 734,470 people each.

Since 2010, Johnson County and Wyandotte county have grown by more than 77,000 people, putting the counties central to the 3rd District roughly 44,000 people over the threshold. Wyandotte County votes heavily Democratic. Johnson County is more Republican, but it has a larger share of Democrats than most of Kansas. Both counties cannot remain entirely whole to meet redistricting requirements.

A change in how members of the military and college students are counted will also mean changes for state legislative districts. Populations in Douglas and Riley counties, home to two state universities and an Army base, increased because college students were counted in Lawrence and Manhattan rather than in their hometowns.

Kansas is one of 29 states across the country where the Legislature wields nearly total control over the redistricting process. Next year, when maps are redrawn to make the number of people in each district equal, Republicans will have an outsize influence on the process thanks to their fortified supermajority.

But they face an uphill battle to convince residents in the Kansas City area that they won’t gerrymander congressional or state legislative districts to supercharge Republican power in the state.

At the meetings in Kansas City, Kansas, and Overland Park any condemnation of former Senate President Susan Wagle’s pledge that “we can draw four Republican maps” sparked applause from the crowd. Sen. Rick Wilborn, A Republican from McPherson and chairman of the redistricting committee, said that Wagel is not driving the redistricting process.

“It’s unfortunate that statement was made,” he said. “But that’s all I have to say about it. I didn't make the statement. No one on that committee made that statement.”

Wilborn and Croft previously drew the ire of Democrats by scheduling many of the meetings during the work day and all in a single week. Democrats say that limits participation to the mostly white retiree and middle-aged group that attended the Overland Park meeting. In 2011, the meetings were spread out over the course of four months.

Rep. Stephanie Clayton, another Overland Park Democrat, said her concerns about accessibility materialized in places like Garden City and Dodge City.

“You have a lot of working people, a lot of shift workers, who were not able to take advantage of that,” she said. “So that is not just an issue here in the Kansas City area, but also all over Kansas.”

House Speaker Ron Ryckman has said that additional virtual town halls may be held in the fall, but he has not yet provided any additional details.

Democrats like Clayton want more town hall meetings to be held after people have had time to review the census data that came out on Thursday — at least two meetings in the five most populous counties in the state.

“We need to have these meetings where people actually live,” Clayton said, “because cows don’t vote, people do. And we’ve got plenty of people here, especially in the Kansas City area.”


Abigail Censky is the political reporter for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @AbigailCensky or email her at abigailcensky (at) kcur (dot) org.

TheKansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.
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