Democrats, ACLU sue over new Kansas congressional districts

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This image shows the "Ad Astra 2" congressional redistricting plan for Kansas drafted by the Kansas Legislative Research Department for Republican leaders in the GOP-controlled Legislature, Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. The blue represents the new 1st Congressional District, and it takes in the city of Lawrence at its far eastern edge. (Kansas Legislative Research Department via AP)

TOPEKA, Kan. – Democrats, a civil rights group and a national elections watchdog filed two lawsuits Monday against Kansas officials over a Republican redistricting law that costs the state's only Democrat in Congress some of the territory in her Kansas City-area district that she carries by wide margins in elections.

Kansas is part of a broader national battle over redrawing congressional districts. Republicans hope to recapture a U.S. House majority in this year’s elections, and both parties are watching states’ redistricting efforts because they could help either pick up or defend individual seats.

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Both lawsuits were filed in Wyandotte County District Court in the Kansas City area, on behalf of aggrieved voters. Both sue Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab, a Republican and the state’s top elections official.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, this year’s presumed GOP nominee for governor, promised a vigorous defense of the new law.

“The plaintiffs are hoping state courts, which in the past have not reviewed federal congressional districts, will write new rules to their advantage,” Schmidt spokesperson John Milburn said in an email.

For decades, lawsuits over congressional redistricting in Kansas have been filed and resolved in federal court. The Kansas Constitution doesn't say whether the state courts can review congressional maps.

In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that complaints of partisan gerrymandering are political issues and not for federal courts to resolve. The Kansas lawsuits ask state courts to declare that Republicans' map represents racial and partisan gerrymandering that violate the state Constitution’s guarantee of voting rights,equal rights for all residents and freedom of speech and assembly.

“The dominant party manipulates the district boundaries to dilute the voting power of the minority party’s voters,” said one lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and the Washington-based Campaign Legal Center.

The Kansas redistricting law removes the northern part of Kansas City, Kansas, from the 3rd District that U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids represents and puts it in the neighboring 2nd District, which includes the state capital of Topeka but also rural communities across eastern Kansas. Kansas City is among Republican-leaning Kansas’ few Democratic strongholds.

The law also moved the liberal northeast Kansas city of Lawrence — another Democratic stronghold and home to the main University of Kansas campus — out of the 2nd District. The city of 95,000 is now in the already sprawling 1st District of central and western Kansas with small conservative communities, some six hours away by car.

The new redistricting law took effect last week after the GOP-controlled Legislature overrode Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto of it.

Republicans have defended all of their moves as necessary to make the state’s four congressional districts as close in population as possible after a decade of population shifts. Under the law, each district has the ideal population of 734,470 residents.

Kansas Senate President Ty Masterson, a Wichita-area Republican, called the GOP map “politically fair," arguing that Davids and the state's three GOP U.S. House members would have won reelection in 2020 with the new lines.

“It is no surprise that Democrats are trying to sue to make Kansas blue, since they are struggling at the ballot box," Masterson said in a statement.

Prominent Democratic attorney Marc Elias' firm filed one lawsuit. Elias has been involved in lawsuits in multiple states, including Georgia, North Carolina and Ohio. His firm represents five voters and a Kansas voting-rights group, Loud Light, and sued both Schwab and the election commissioner for Kansas City, Kansas.

Shortly afterward, the ACLU and Campaign Legal Center filed their lawsuit on behalf of 11 voters against Schwab.

The lawsuits argue that Republicans set out to draw Davids out of her seat, and diluted Black and Hispanic voters' clout by cutting their numbers in her district. They also argue that the new map is unacceptable because it fails to keep the core of the state's side of the Kansas City area in a single district.

“It unnecessarily and inexplicably shifts large numbers of Kansans out of their prior districts, with no population-based need or other legitimate justification,” the Elias group's lawsuit alleges.

As evidence of Republicans' intentions, both lawsuits quote comments to a Republican gathering in September 2020 by then-retiring Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle. She said if Republicans won legislative supermajorities — which they did — GOP lawmakers could ensure that Republicans captured all four Kansas congressional districts.

“I guarantee you,” she said in remarks captured on video.

The Kansas City area has too many residents for a single congressional district. Republicans opted to split more diverse Kansas City, Kansas, rather than whiter and wealthier suburbs to the south because those suburbs have never been divided between two districts.

GOP lawmakers also rejected criticism of the map as racial gerrymandering, noting that while the percentages of Black and Hispanic voters dropped in the 3rd District, they increased in the 2nd.


Hegeman reported from Belle Plaine.


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