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Kansas Republicans are advancing new congressional maps. Democrats say the plan cheats voters

 Connie Brown Collins, a Kansas City, Kansas resident and voting rights advocate, speaks at a recent news conference called by a coalition of organizations opposed to the congressional redistricting map approved by the Kansas Legislature.
Jim McLean
Kansas News Service
Connie Brown Collins, a Kansas City, Kansas resident and voting rights advocate, speaks at a recent news conference called by a coalition of organizations opposed to the congressional redistricting map approved by the Kansas Legislature.

The Kansas House gave first-round approval to the congressional map Tuesday. It already passed the Senate, and final House approval Wednesday would send it to the governor's desk. Republicans say it accounts for population shifts. Democrats say it's intended to cost U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids her seat in Congress.

TOPEKA, Kansas — A controversial Kansas redistricting plan pushed by Republicans is a single House procedural vote from going to the desk of Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, where it would face an uncertain fate.

The fight over how to redraw Kansas congressional districts could also head to court.

Republicans used their supermajority in the Kansas House Tuesday to give first-round approval to a redistricting plan that would likely make it harder for U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, the state’s lone Democrat in Congress, to win reelection this year.

The Republican-controlled Senate approved the same map last week.

House lawmakers are set to take a final vote on the plan Wednesday. Approval would send it to the governor to either sign it into law or veto it.

Kelly has signaled that a veto is possible. But Republicans have the votes to override her if they stick together.

 Republican-drawn congressional district maps.
Republican-drawn congressional district maps.

That would leave the courts as the last line of attack for Democrats who see it as an attempt to unseat Davis by watering down the votes of people of color by slicing up their neighborhoods into districts where Republicans are likely to prevail.

Marc Eilas, a Democratic lawyer whose firm specializes in election law disputes, said in a social media post late Monday night that the state would likely find itself in court if the map is approved.

“If Kansas enacts that congressional gerrymander,” he said on Twitter, “I expect that it will be sued.”

Why is the map so controversial?

Democrats have big problems with the map. Chief among them:

  • They believe it sets Davids up for defeat by moving more than 110,000 Wyandotte County voters out of the Kansas City-centered district she represents in Congress (the 3rd), into a more rural and Republican district that stretches to the Oklahoma border (the 2nd), currently represented by Republican U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner. 

  • They note that Davids won two-thirds of the Wyandotte County vote in 2020 but would likely not fare as well in the counties she would inherit  — Anderson and Franklin. President Donald Trump breezed to victory in those counties with 71% of the vote. 

  • Advocates for the state’s LGBTQ community say that voters in those two rural counties would be less likely to support Davids, one of 11 openly LGBTQ members of Congress.

  • Finally, lawmakers that represent Lawrence say the map would make their community a political anomaly by drawing the map to include it  — and the University of Kansas — in the sprawling 1st Congressional District. It covers the western two-thirds of the state, circling around Wichita and a handful of surrounding counties, which comprise the 4th District.

Reliably Democratic Lawrence, said Democratic Rep. Barbara Ballard, shares little in common with the rural, Republican-dominated communities that dot the state’s high plains.

“It makes no sense,” she said.

Unless, said Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, the goal is to ignore much of the input received at 14 public hearings and weaken the power of minority and Democratic voters in the few places where it’s strong enough to make a difference.

“The majority party has used selective listening to justify a map that makes no sense for Kansas unless you see congressional districts as a means to one-party control,” she said.

Connie Brown Collins, a Kansas City Kansas resident and voting rights advocate, said the map disenfranchises voters of color.

“If legislators think that we in Wyandotte County are snoozing through this travesty … think again,” Brown said. “You have awakened a sleeping lion.”

 A congressional district map proposed by Democrats, and roundly defeated in the Kansas House.
A congressional district map proposed by Democrats, and roundly defeated in the Kansas House.

Republicans fought off numerous amendments offered by Democrats. One alternative, called the “United” map, restored all of Wyandotte County to the 3rd District but put parts of southern and western Johnson County in the 2nd. 

The amendment was defeated 36-75. 

Republicans say it’s all about the numbers

Republicans say the map achieves their top priority of equalizing the populations of the state’s congressional districts.

  • As drawn, each of the state’s four congressional districts would have 734,470 people. Achieving zero deviation, they say, makes the map defensible if it’s challenged in court. 

  • The map breaks off Johnson County from Wyandotte County, Republicans say, because their growth over the last 10 years put the 3rd District roughly 44,000 people over the population threshold.

  • Forced to make a choice about what to trim, Republicans chose to keep all of Johnson County in the 3rd District.

Republican Senate President Ty Masterson said the priority was to maintain what he called “the core of the district,” not to target Davids for defeat.

“Those two communities (counties) cannot exist in the same congressional district, I don’t care if it’s (former U.S. Rep.) Kevin Yoder or Sharice Davids or anybody else,” Masterson said.

Republicans acknowledged that Davids may find her new district more competitive, but said their review of the 2020 election results show that she could still win it.

“There’s no attempt to eliminate a Democratic district,” said Sen. Rick Wilborn, the Republican chair of the Senate Redistricting Committee.

Including Lawrence with western Kansas, Republicans said, was done for strategic, not political, reasons. The idea, Masterson said, was to unite the University of Kansas and Kansas State University in the same congressional district.

Rep. Steve Hubert, a Valley Center Republican, undermined that argument during the House debate when he said that Republicans needn’t apologize for trying to strengthen their already strong political hand.

“There’s nothing new under the sun,” he said. “What we’re doing has been done before and will be done again.”

What’s next

If the plan is given final approval in the House Wednesday, a veto might be coming.

If Kelly does as expected and lawmakers then override her, the map will likely be challenged in court.

In 2012, lawmakers couldn’t agree on any maps, and three federal judges drew the lines.

If Kelly’s veto is sustained, lawmakers would have to come up with a new map.

Lawmakers must also agree on new legislative and state board of education maps.

Kansas has no hard and fast redistricting deadline. But for practical reasons all maps need to be done by the June 1 candidate filing deadline.

Jim McLean is the senior correspondent for the Kansas News Service. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks or email jim (at) kcur (dot) org. 

The Kansas 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 toksnewsservice.org.

Copyright 2022 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Jim McLean is an editor and reporter for KCUR 89.3. He is the managing director of KCUR's Kansas News Service, a collaboration between KCUR and other public media stations across Kansas.