Kansas Lawmaker Proposes Redistricting Overhaul


By John Celock

A Kansas lawmaker wants to take the redistricting process out of the hands of state legislators.

Rep. Brett Parker (D-Overland Park) plans to introduce a constitutional amendment later this week that would implement an independent commission to draw the new lines for state lawmakers, members of Congress and the state Board of Education every decade, taking the process away from the state Legislature. The amendment is patterned after a similar process in use in Washington State.

“More than anything it gives the public more confidence in why the maps are being drawn,” Parker told The Celock Report.

Under the terms of Parker’s proposal, the majority and minority leaders of the state House and Senate would each appoint one member of the redistricting commission, with a prohibition on commissioners holding federal or state office and being governmental employees. Commissioners would also be prohibited from running for office for two years following service on the commission. The four commissioners would then elect a non-voting fifth member to serve as chairperson.

The commission would create the draft maps and submit the proposals for the state House of Representatives and Congress to the state House and the state Senate and the state Board of Education to the Senate for review. Lawmakers could vote down the proposed maps, which would then have the commission create new ones within 10 days, again allowing lawmakers the chance to review and vote on the proposals. The process would repeat until three proposed maps were rejected by the Legislature. At that point, lawmakers could make adjustments and pass a final plan.

Parker said that while there is still legislative involvement, his proposal would make it harder for lawmakers to keep rejecting maps.

“If a legislative body was determined enough to prevent good maps, they can,” Parker said. “This system sets them up for more public exposure because they would have to reject three independent maps. I think it is hard at that point to not be seen of not having political motivation.”

The proposal comes after a 2012 redistricting process in Kansas that resulted in a federal court having to redraw the lines when lawmakers could not. In 2012, lawmakers were able to agree on new lines for the state House, Congress and the state Board of Education, but a fight between conservative and moderate Republicans over control of the state Senate, caused lawmakers to not be able to approve maps in time.

Sending the task to federal court caused the new legislative maps – which created several districts that had two or three sitting lawmakers in a new district – to be released on a Friday, with the deadline for signing up to run being the following Monday. The tight time frame resulted in a series of last minute decisions to run for office and caused many lawmakers to scramble over the weekend to rent residences in new districts they wanted to run in. Parker wants to avoid a repeat.

“You don’t want people making their decisions to run based on that,” Parker said of the candidates basing their decisions at a last minute look at a map.

Parker said that he can see an independent commission using best practices in the redistricting arena for the drawing of districts. Among these are utilizing computer modeling to draw ideal districts without regards to party affiliation or where incumbents live. He said that while lawmakers may be committed to drawing the best lines for themselves, they would still be aware of the political realities.

Parker said that he wants Kansas to avoid some of the pitfalls that have occurred in other states with redistricting. He noted the situation in North Carolina, where a federal court has ordered the Republican-controlled state Legislature to redraw the state’s legislative lines this year, following a court case that said that lawmakers had drawn the lines to favor the GOP. Under the court order, North Carolina lawmakers will face voters this November in the new districts for a one-year term.

“If non-elected officials are drawing the boundary lines, you can see that it is not being done for any one party’s political benefit,” Parker said.

Parker said the amendment has been gaining support in the state House, with over 20 lawmakers from both parties signing on to co-sponsor the measure with him as of Monday. He said he is confident of gaining more co-sponsors before the Wednesday deadline to introduce the measure.

“It’s gaining momentum and I am optimistic that we can get a large group of co-sponsors,” he said.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 18 states have some sort of independent commission in place to work on redistricting, with some allowing lawmakers to approve final plans. An additional five states have an independent commission in place that would take over the tasks if lawmakers did not draw new maps in a certain time frame.

Creation of an independent redistricting commission does not always take politics out of the process. New Jersey’s commissions – who are appointed by legislative leaders and the chairs of the state Democratic and Republican Parties – typically include elected officials and political party leaders. The 2011 11-member commission included six sitting lawmakers from both parties – including the state Assembly speaker, Assembly majority leader and two powerful committee chairs – along with one former assemblywoman, who has since become a state senator. Other commissioners included Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) closest political confidant. New Jersey’s model of having five commissioners from each party and an independent tie-breaker – typically an academic – normally gives much power to the tie-breaking member who chooses between proposals from the two parties.

Arizona’s independent redistricting commission, which features five members without political ties selected in part by an independent body vetting applicants, has been mentioned as a model by government reform groups. The Arizona commission, in place for two redistricting processes, was the basis for the commission California created in 2008. In 2011, then Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) and the GOP-controlled state Senate tried to fire commission chairwoman Colleen Coyle Mathis, a registered independent, saying that Mathis held too many closed door meetings, did not have compact enough districts and did not disclose her husband’s involvement with a Democratic state legislative campaign on her application.

The move came after the commission released a draft congressional map that placed U.S. Rep. David Schweikert (R) and then U.S. Rep. Ben Quayle (R) into the same district. Democrats had alleged that Brewer made the move after Quayle’s mother, Marilyn, asked Brewer to intervene to protect her son’s district. Marilyn Quayle, the wife of former Vice President Dan Quayle, has denied the allegations. The state Supreme Court ruled against Brewer in the case.

The U.S. Supreme Court has since ruled in favor of the constitutionality of independent redistricting commissions, in a case brought challenging the Arizona commission.

The Washington State plan has drawn praise from at least one lawmaker from that state who said that it has taken politics out of the process and allows for it to be more bipartisan.

“It works very well, it avoids partisan advantages and ensures some level of agreement between Republicans and Democrats on the final plan,” Washington state Sen. Hans Zeiger (R-Puyallup) told The Celock Report.

Parker has several steps to go to be able to get his proposal enshrined in the Kansas Constitution. The proposal would have to pass both houses of the state Legislature with super majorities in order to be placed on the 2018 state ballot for final consideration by the state’s voters. If passed it would take effect following the 2020 Census as part of the redistricting process for 2022. Parker said he wants the people of Kansas to have a chance to make the final decision on the proposal.

The last constitutional amendment to pass in Kansas was the Right to Hunt and Fish, which was passed by voters last year.

Parker said that he can see voters being supportive of making redistricting more independent than it is now. He noted that while there will still be a legislative component, lawmakers would have to take several public steps to stop the commission’s proposal from taking effect.

“The hope would be if an independent commission submits the maps, they would be passed,” Parker said. “If you try to stymie the process you hope it would be more of a clear and public process.”