'Kansas voters deserve a fair, transparent redistricting process': Democrats critical of town hall schedule

Jason Tidd
Topeka Capital-Journal
The map for Kansas' congressional districts as drawn by the courts during the 2012 redistricting process.

Kansas Democrats and voter advocacy groups are criticizing the Republican-led redistricting process and the scheduling of 14 town hall meetings across the state over five days.

The Kansas Legislative Research Department announced the listening sessions for the House and Senate redistricting committees on Friday. The meetings will be Aug. 9-13 in Manhattan, Salina, Hays, Colby, Garden City, Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita, Chanute, Pittsburg, Overland Park, Kansas City, Leavenworth and Lawrence.

Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Redistricting Committee, said she wasn't consulted or informed of the schedule or rules prior to their release.

"Kansas voters deserve a fair, transparent redistricting process with ample opportunity for citizen participation," said Sykes, of Lenexa. "Republicans are treating redistricting the same way they treat the legislative process: hastily, sloppily, and with as little opportunity for deliberation and public input as possible. That’s a feature, to them, not a bug. Kansans — and the duly elected Democrats serving on this committee — deserve more respect from Republican leadership than a perfunctory notice about this critical process."

Senate Vice President Rick Wilborn, of McPherson, and Rep. Chris Croft, of Overland Park, the Republican chairs of the Senate and House redistricting committees, issued a joint statement.

"The nonpartisan research staff deserves accolades for putting together the impressive 5-day, 14-stop statewide listening tour, which will provide Kansans in every corner of our state the ability to offer their input about redistricting," Wilborn and Croft said.

"It is no surprise, but still disappointing, that the Democrats were ready with press releases to politicize the process. By attacking what amounts to a calendar, Kansas Democrats demonstrate they would have leveled criticism regardless of the schedule and are more concerned with reciting left-wing talking points from Washington than hearing from hardworking Kansans."

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Legislative staff released the schedule at 6:10 p.m. Friday. Sykes issued her statement at 5:03 a.m. Saturday. Wilborn and Croft issued their statement at 12:33 p.m. Sunday.

Legislative research staff are tasked by state statute with assisting committee chairs with planning, preparing an agenda and sending meeting notifications as directed by the chair.

"The Republican chairs of the redistricting committee declined to take ownership of this schedule when they threw nonpartisan government staff under the bus," House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, a Wichita Democrat, said Monday evening in a statement. "These hardworking staffers simply followed the instructions given to them by Republican leadership. Where is the accountability?"

Criticism about listening tour schedule

"As noted, the statewide listening tour will be in 14 cities throughout Kansas and provides the public the opportunity to offer input early in the process," Wilborn and Croft said. "We look forward to listening to people of Kansas."

The schedule created by legislative staff, who work at the direction of Republican committee leadership, uses the same 14 cities as when similar hearings were held in 2011. However, those meetings were spaced out from July to October.

Sawyer said the redistricting process "is compromised" because of the schedule, which limits the town halls to 75 minutes. He said that ample notice was not provided to the public.

"We’re disappointed that the Legislative Redistricting Committees released the 'Listening Tour' on short notice and that it will be conducted in a single week," said Martha Pint, co-president of the non-partisan League of Women Voters of Kansas, in a statement. "We’re also concerned the ‘Listening Tour’ is being held prior to the Census Bureau’s release of the detailed population counts that are needed to draw new districts."

By waiting one more week, the redistricting committees could have had pertinent Census data. The Census Bureau has said that in-depth demographic statistics from the 2020 Census used to redraw legislative voting districts will be available by Aug. 16.

"The League is committed to ensuring that district maps at all levels are drawn fairly and accurately, with the concerns of all Kansans considered and equitably represented," said Pint. "Rushing through this preliminary process just days before receiving Census data and without adopting unbiased redistricting guidelines guarantees that the public’s testimony can be easily ignored by the Committees."

In a July letter to the redistricting committees, the governor's commissions on Disability Concerns, Hispanic & Latino American Affairs and African American Affairs raised accessibility concerns.

Commissioners asked that all hearings be held in facilities that are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, sign language and Spanish interpreters be provided, and that the public be notified of the availability of such services to encourage participation. To accommodate work schedules, several meetings should be held during evenings or weekends, the commissions said.

"Redistricting town halls have been scheduled with short notice, during workdays, as K-12 school begins, and before college students are on campus — where they're counted during the Census," said Davis Hammet, president of the left-leaning civic organization Loud Light, in a statement. "This schedule seems to be designed to prevent public input not facilitate it."

Meeting times and locations are available online from the Kansas Legislative Research Department. Information on how to provide written or oral testimony is also available.

The League of Women Voters noted that "in their haste to start the tour," many addresses for meeting locations are inaccurate.

For example, the Wichita listening session listed the wrong address for Wichita State University's Metropolitan Complex.

Senate Republican staff did not respond to questions about the criticism before Monday afternoon.

"Committee leaders feel it is important to hear from people all across Kansas as we start the process," Senate Republican spokesman Mike Pirner said in an email about the redistricting criticisms. "This 14-stop week-long listening tour allows us to do so.  The sooner we begin, the more opportunity Kansans will have to weigh in as we move forward."

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Gerrymandering 'has no proper place' in redistricting

The League of Women Voters urged the redistricting committees "to eliminate from the redistricting process any practices aimed at protecting incumbent legislators and taking partisan factors into consideration. ... partisan bias has no proper place in creation of new representative districts."

Gerrymandering was central to the June debate by Sedgwick County Democratic precinct committeemen and committeewomen when selecting a replacement for Rep. Elizabeth Bishop, who resigned at the end of the session. While Rep. Chuck Schmidt was selected to serve the rest of the term, his opponent raised concerns that Schmidt's southeast Wichita home could be redrawn into a Republican-dominated district, costing Democrats a seat in the Legislature.

Democrat fears about gerrymandering to help Republican politicians during elections in the red state was highlighted in October when former Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle addressed GOP donors.

"During redistricting, I need to give her (Renee Erickson) some more Republican neighborhoods in order to make sure she stays elected," Wagle said in comments captured on video.

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Sen. Renee Erickson, a Wichita Republican, later won the November election for Wagle’s former seat with 51.68% of the vote. The 2020 election was closer than when Wagle last won the seat, with 58.4% of the vote in 2016.

“So redistricting is right around the corner, and if Gov. Kelly can veto a Republican bill, that gives us four Republican congressmen, that takes out Sharice Davids up in the 3rd (Congressional District), we can do that. I guarantee you, we can draw four Republican congressional maps, but we can't do it unless we have a two-thirds majority in the Senate and House,” Wagle said in the video.