At packed Johnson County redistricting forum, residents raise concerns about transparency, gerrymandering

An estimated 250 people turned out Thursday afternoon at Matt Ross Community Center in Overland Park for a public listening session hosted by Kansas lawmakers about the upcoming process to redraw state legislative and Congressional district boundaries. Jana Malkovich, a member of the League of Women Voters of Johnson County, addresses lawmakers, asking them to ensure the redistricting process is fair and equal. Photo credit Nikki Lansford.

Dozens of Johnson County residents spoke at a packed town hall Thursday in Overland Park aimed at gathering public input ahead of the process to redraw state legislative and Congressional district boundaries in Kansas.

Many of the roughly 50 speakers on Thursday expressed their exasperation with the schedule for the public meetings — 14 town halls in one week, nearly all during business hours on weekdays.

Speakers also repeatedly raised their concerns that the Republican-dominated legislature would end up drawing gerrymandered districts to favor their party, potentially carving up Johnson and Wyandotte counties in order to make it harder for Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids to win reelection.

A packed crowd

Thursday’s session at Matt Ross Community Center began at 1:45 p.m. and drew a standing-room-only crowd estimated to be around 250.

The town hall was slated to last until 3 p.m., which gave enough time for about 50 people to speak. In addition, written comments are being collected by the House and Senate redistricting committees.

To find out more information about how you can submit your comments, go here.

Many residents who spoke Thursday said they wanted additional town hall sessions held later in the year to accommodate more people.

“I’m retired and I work part time, so I can attend today’s session,” Doug Smith of Overland Park said. “But my friends and neighbors who are still working full-time during the day cannot be here. While they could submit written testimony, there’s something meaningful about face-to-face exchange.”

Others pointed out that the meetings scheduled this week came before the U.S. Census Bureau had released detailed reports from the 2020 Census. Thursday’s meeting did coincide with a release of some Census information, though more comprehensive, district-level reports are expected later.

Stacey Knoell of Olathe said she found it funny that lawmakers were speaking about “what any district would look like without seeing the Census data.”

The information released by the Census Bureau Thursday showed that, in general, rural areas of the country are losing population, while urban and suburban centers are growing.

According to the Census data, the state of Kansas overall saw its population grow by 3% over the past 10 years, but that growth was especially concentrated in metropolitan areas.

While 80 counties in Kansas, especially in the western half of the state, lost population, Johnson County grew by 12%, the second highest figure of any county in Kansas.

Worries over gerrymandering

Senate and House members hear public testimony during a town hall at the Matt Ross Community Center on Thursday, Aug. 12. Senate Redistricting Committee Chairman Sen. Rick Wilborn sits at center. To his left is the committee’s ranking minority member, Democratic Sen. Dinah Sykes of Lenexa. Photo credit Nikki Lansford.

In addition, many commenters on Thursday expressed concern over the possibility that the Republican-dominated state legislature would draw boundaries that would gerrymander the state’s Third Congressional District, in an attempt to make it harder for Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids to win reelection.

“Any plan to throw Wyandotte County into, let’s say, the big First Congressional District would have a chilling effect on the African American voting bloc in Wyandotte County,” Knoell said. “The United States is a representative democracy, and for that to work, it needs to be possible for the people to elect those who actually represent them and their interests.”

Several speakers also referenced former Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle’s comments made at a fundraising event last year, in which she expressed the need for GOP supermajorities in order to redraw Congressional district boundaries to favor Republicans and override any potential veto by Gov. Laura Kelly.

Some residents also said they were put off by the listening tour’s one-week timeline. Before the redrawing of district boundaries 10 years ago, the same number of town halls were held across the state but over several months.

“Those of you on the committee wield a lot of power, and we trust you to use that power to the best of your ability,” Jana Malkovich with the League of Women Voters said. “We are counting on each of you to fulfill the promise to revisit cities on the listening tour again in the fall. We ask that those hearings will be publicized.”

Republican chair defends process

Republican state Sen. Rick Wilborn of McPherson, who chairs the Senate Redistricting Committee, chaired Thursday’s meeting in Overland Park.

He defended the one-week schedule.

“The one-week tour was easier and preferred among lawmakers than spreading it out over multiple weeks,” he said.

Wilborn added that he believed the meetings this week had been fair and transparent.

He noted video of the meetings were livestreamed online, something that had not occurred 10 years ago during the last redistricting process. He also noted that there is no deadline for residents to provide written statements to the committee.

After public input, it will be up to the state legislature to redraw new district maps when it convenes for its 2022 session.

Gov. Laura Kelly will have to approve whatever plan the legislature forwards to her desk, but with supermajorities in the state House and Senate, Republicans will have the ability to override any potential veto.

The last time redistricting occurred in 2011, lawmakers were not able to come up with a plan, and a federal court had to step in and draw the boundaries that are still currently in use.