By Noah Taborda
Kansas Republican senators over the course of a three-hour debate Friday countered criticisms of their plan for the state’s congressional district boundaries, passing the controversial “Ad Astra” map.
Opponents argued Republican leadership rushed the map and did not do enough to preserve the integrity of minority communities and other communities of interest, pointing to the decision to divide Wyandotte County along Interstate 70 and to move Lawrence into a rural district that stretches to the Colorado border.
Democrats described the proposed map as an attempt to shift power in favor of one party by shattering the 3rd Congressional District.
Senate President Ty Masterson batted away those criticisms, arguing that his map maintained the same voting outcomes as previous elections and noting a desire to keep Johnson County together, as opposed to Wyandotte.
“We don’t draw the maps on voters. We draw the map on residents,” Masterson said, pushing back on the discussion of voting outcomes. “It’s a false assertion that this 3rd District is somehow given up or that anybody is trying to be taken out. It’s just simply false in the numbers.”
Stakeholders and concerned legislators have called into question the goal of redistricting amid strong pushback from the public. Republicans swatted away several alternative maps on the Senate floor, passing the bill mostly along party lines, 26 to 9.
Changes to congressional boundaries must occur following population changes in the four districts from 2010 to 2020.
Masterson said the four members of the Kansas congressional delegation — Rep. Tracey Mann in the vast and rural 1st District, Rep. Jake LaTurner in the 2nd District, Sharice Davids in the Kansas City metro area 3rd District and Rep. Ron Estes in the Wichita area 4th District — would maintain their seats.
Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes said the bill violated several redistricting guidelines agreed to by legislative leadership and showed little regard for the economic, cultural and historical ties of communities across the state.
“It’s never been about keeping our communities together,” Sykes said. “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 rather than fundamental to the democratic representation.”
The Ad Astra map, unveiled Tuesday and approved by a Senate committee Thursday, is also under consideration in the House, where a committee vote could occur as soon as Monday.
Sykes proposed an amendment to replace the map with a version far more favorable to Democrats that preserved Wyandotte County and Lawrence but split part of Johnson County. Republicans balked at the idea and voted down the map.
Sen. David Haley represents part of Wyandotte County. He said even if Republicans push the map through, it will face a tough test in court.
“Ad Astra means, as we know in our motto, ‘to the stars,’” the Kansas City, Kansas Democrat said. “The rest of that motto is per aspera (through difficulty) because it’s going to be difficult to make that map stick.”
Sen. Rick Wilborn, a McPherson Republican, said it was the best option available to Kansas.
“Many of the proposed maps have deviations and variances, which are questionable at the very best,” Wilborn said.
The bill now awaits action from the House. If approved, the map would go to the governor, who declined to say in a briefing with reporters Friday if she approved of the map passed by the Senate.
“I stand by my firm belief that when you’re doing redistricting, what’s important is to keep together communities of interest and ensure that you don’t disenfranchise blocs of voters,” the governor said.
Worries over process
Sen. Ethan Corson, a Prairie Village Democrat, took issue with many aspects of the map but was primarily frustrated with the process leading up to the debate on the Senate floor, which he said ran counter to the goal of unprecedented transparency.
Dating back to July, Corson said GOP leadership did not include the minority party in many conversations, noting that he found out from reporters about an early August redistricting listening tour. He said the notice of the upcoming town halls gave constituents a short turnaround time, and many of the sessions were during the workday.
Republican legislative leadership organized a later round of virtual listening sessions before critical Census data became available to the public, Corson said.
“Redistricting really is all about math, and it’s all about the numbers,” Corson said, as he grilled Wilborn in a long line of questioning. “What we did by holding the redistricting town halls before we had the Census data was, we deprived Kansans of understanding the basis for the entire redistricting process and how that math, as it kept being called in committee, would affect their community.”
Sen. Jeff Pittman, a Leavenworth Democrat, said it felt like northeast Kansas was having its identity stripped away by the Ad Astra map. He moved to send the measure back to the committee for consideration for further public input.
Wilborn was quick to dismiss the motion as unnecessary.
“As far as giving a lot of input, I’ve had a lot of input also through emails strongly supporting this map,” he said. “So, it’s just a matter of opinion and it matters where you live.”
Sen. Marci Francisco expressed disappointment that previous promises of opportunities for legislators’ input went unfulfilled.
“I was asked and pretty much told not to speak and at the same time told that there would be plenty of time during this session for legislators to have input,” Francisco said of an exchange during a redistricting town hall.
Three other options
In defiance of efforts to skew maps for political gain, Sen. Dennis Pyle, a Hiawatha Republican, proposed three alternative maps to the Republican and Democratic options.
While Pyle acknowledged his proposals were likely to fail, he proposed each map to show the different approaches they could take to abide closer to the redistricting guidelines. He also chastised party leaders for drawing maps to benefit congressional representatives.
“I’m not here to draw a map for the incumbent congressman in Washington, D.C.,” Pyle said. “That sounds kind of swampish.”
Republican leaders opposed Pyle’s maps because committee members did not vet them before the senator introduced them on the floor.
Some Democrats voiced support for the ingenuity but chose not to back the alternate maps because they did not receive public input.
Pyle also criticized the hypocrisy of legislators who criticize dividing counties they represent or that would benefit the party but support breaking up other communities. Pyle said one way or another, someone is likely to see their district disturbed.
For example, Pyle reminded his colleagues that a previous redistricting bill had seen his district cut in half.
“I didn’t appreciate it, and the people in that district didn’t appreciate it, but we draw maps up here and we can draw them, as you can see, pretty much any which way you want,” he said.
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