Finding their way on 3 maps

By Walt Braun

It’s impossible to know what to make of the Kansas House’s view of how a new Congressional map should be drawn following its peripatetic activity over the past few days.

Just Tuesday the House approved by a 20-vote margin an excellent map that kept Manhattan in the Second Congressional District. Then this morning the same House reversed itself and killed that map, apparently prepared to take up a far less satisfactory map advanced last week by Speaker Mike O’Neal.  That may or may indicate that O’Neal has the votes to push his map to the joint redistricting committee. The Legislature was taking that question up as this was written.

Tuesday’s exercise in reversal was lamentably typical of the redistricting status quo in Topeka, where at session’s start lawmakers committed themselves to completing redistricting work by the end of February.  Presumably they meant February of 2012, although that may not have been specified.  Beyond the congressional snafu, existing proposals for redrawing state Senate and House districts are unsatisfactory, largely because unlike the proposed Congressional maps, they fall miserably short of meeting the basic standard of “one person, one vote.”

The basic problem is that at the outset of the process, legislators allowed themselves the slack of a five percent plus or minus margin for district populations. That means that while the ideal size for a state Senate district is around 70,000 persons, lawmakers decided that they would view any district with at least 66,500 and no more than 73,500 persons as close enough. That’s the equivalent of giving one senator 1.05 votes, but giving another only 0.95 votes.

The fairness issue ought to be obvious to anybody who examines the congressional process, where federal courts have thrown out maps that attempted to justify far smaller tolerances in districts with ten times as many persons as live in any of this state’s Senate districts. Congressional maps contain district-by-district variances that can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Lawmakers have devised several cockamamie rationales for why state Senate and House districts can’t be drawn to roughly the same tolerances as Congressional districts, but the fact that lawmakers already do precisely the same thing with Congressional districts that they say they are unable to do with legislative districts puts the lie to those excuses. The real story is that given the way such districts are drawn today – with generally under-populated rural districts and over-populated urban districts — a truly equitable map would accelerate the shift of power from west to east, creating unacceptable political problems.

Riley Countians — and their lawmakers — should be especially sensitive on this issue. Most of the Senate maps now in circulation would give the 22nd Senate District about 4.5 percent more population than it ought to have under an equitable system. A House map already approved by that body makes the 66th District about 4.9 percent larger than it would be under a plan that adhered to “one person, one vote” principles. The same map over-populates the 67th District by 3.5 percent. All of those steps water down the influence of local residents in the legislative process, and are thus inequitable.

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