Witnesses throw water on House’s congressional map splitting Wyandotte and Johnson counties
Critics argue GOP’s plan reeks of gerrymandering, risks escalating racial tension
TOPEKA, Kan. (Kansas Reflector) - State Rep. Mary-Lynn Poskin expressed appreciation Thursday for the opportunity to share insights on redrawing of Kansas congressional district boundaries after being prohibited from participating in public town halls hosted by her colleagues in the Legislature.
Poskin, a Democrat from Overland Park, urged the House Redistricting Committee not to ignore sentiments of nearly every person at an August town hall in Overland Park about recasting four congressional districts held by three Republicans and one Democrat. Her remarks were in response to the “Ad Astra” map, offered by GOP leaders of the House and Senate, that would split the 3rd District held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids and dilute the influence of Democrats by shifting them to the 1st District held by U.S. Rep. Tracey Mann and 2nd District of U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner.
“I am here to remind you of what nearly every single person said in the full-capacity crowd: Do not break up the 3rd congressional district. Keep the core of Johnson and Wyandotte counties together. Clearly, these maps failed to do so,” Poskin said.
More than half of 500 pieces of testimony presented last year at the Legislature’s town hall meetings on redistricting raised opposition to dividing Johnson and Wyandotte counties.
The House and Senate redistricting committees convened at the Capitol to press ahead with committee work on a congressional district map before turning to redraw 125 districts of the Kansas House, 40 districts of the Kansas Senate, and 10 districts of the Kansas State Board of Education maps.
All the maps must reflect population shifts occurring between the 2010 and 2020 Census counts. However, political considerations typically come into play with the majority party seeking to solidify its electoral footprint and the minority party on the defensive. Democratic Gov. Kelly could veto maps. The GOP-led Legislature could override her. Lawsuits challenging the maps could be filed before the dust settles on 2022 redistricting.
Sherri Grogan, a member of the League of Women Voters in Leavenworth County, said the “Ad Astra” map sparked constitutional questions because it would separate communities of interest too frequently left out of the political process. The map would slice horizontally through Wyandotte County along Interstate 70.
“Dividing Kansas City, Kansas, has the potential to increase social and racial tension,” Grogan said. “The high concentration of African Americans in northeast Wyandotte County has been placed in District 2 while a considerable portion of the Hispanics in southeast Wyandotte County are in District 3.”
She endorsed the “Buffalo 2″ map offered by House Democrats and the “Bluestem” map introduced on behalf of the League of Women Voters. Both keep Johnson and Wyandotte counties unified in the 3rd District.
Wyandotte County resident Judith Ancel, president of the nonprofit Cross Border Network for Justice and Solidarity, offered an unusual explanation for the advantage of the Kansas City metropolitan region being represented by a single member of the U.S. House. The international human rights organization specializes in investigating violations in other countries. The benefit of a strong working relationship with one member was important when one of Cross Border’s members was arrested in Mexico while investigating the working conditions of a U.S. factory supplier.
“He was attacked by Mexican police, arrested and interrogated,” she said. “He was held for several days. In the meantime, we were frantic and ended up relying extensively on our relationship with our member of Congress to communicate the danger he was into the State Department and secure their help. To us having one congressperson familiar with us and our issues made all the difference.”
Thomas Witt, executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy organization Equality Kansas, said Davids won election in the 3rd District in 2018 by defeating an entrenched incumbent. The Legislature also gained two LGBTQ members and its first transgender member and their service could be jeopardized if targeted during redistricting, he said.
“Representation matters,” Witt said. “It took many long years to earn our seats at the table, and we don’t want to lose them to any form of deliberate gerrymandering. We oppose any proposed plan that draws the incumbent lawmakers into districts with other incumbents, or into districts that shift the partisan balance in such an extreme way that they are unwinnable.”
Davis Hammet, of the Loud Light Civic Action, said the “Ad Astra” map preferred by GOP leadership represented an “intense partisan gerrymander.” The map would cluster four state universities — Kansas State University, University of Kansas, Emporia State University, and Fort Hays State University — into the 1st District in an apparent attempt to dilute the voice of younger voters in a district with a Republican majority, he said.
“Competitive congressional races require candidates to appeal to young voters,” said Hammet, who has been involved in election litigation in Kansas. “When districts are highly uncompetitive, as is the case in the ‘Ad Astra’ map, young voters are less likely to be contacted by political campaigns and civic organizations, thereby reducing their engagement in the political process.”
Hammet said the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution lowered the voting age to 18 and prevented states from denying or abridging voting rights based on age.
He also questioned why the House and Senate redistricting committee gave the public less than 24 hours to submit written testimony about maps introduced Tuesday in the Legislature.
Mark McCormick, representing the ACLU of Kansas, said complex, underlying data sets delving into demographics of each proposed map of the four congressional districts wasn’t made public for review prior to that deadline and called into question the ability of anyone to engage in a legitimate constitutional analysis of the maps. He said the speed at which the House and Senate were moving toward votes on the maps was troubling.
“We ask committee leadership to rethink the course of their actions,” McCormick said. “Slow down the process. Allow for a reasonable amount of time for public comment. Provide all information on maps publicly. We have a long process ahead of us. We have time to do it right.”
Patricia Willer, chair of the Douglas County Democratic Party, said the “Ad Astra” map would improperly carve Lawrence out of the eastern Kansas 2nd District and place it in the rural 1st District covering western Kansas. She said Lawrence should remain with all of Douglas County in a congressional district.
“Douglas County is a community of interest with a long and proud history since the founding of Kansas as a state. However, it has an urban city, which is also the county seat, and the rural areas are primarily smaller family farms that provide a healthy mix. They have little to do with the large agricultural areas of the western part of the state. This rips our county apart.”
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