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Lawmakers practice art of redistricting

Burdett Loomis

By A Contributor

There’s been a major controversy in Lawrence over a performance art project that will raise and then slaughter a handful of chickens. Hey, it’s art.

Chickens aside, the best place in Kansas to view the art of the absurd resides at your fingertips.

On the Kansas Legislature’s redistricting site, you’ll find provocative and odd shapes of proposed U.S. House and state Senate districts.

Each constitutionally mandated 10-year bout of redistricting reflects an intensely political process. Fair enough. And Kansas has not adopted a non-partisan redistricting commission, as have some other states, such as Iowa.

Still, the last several redistricting efforts have not been unduly partisan, although they have had their dramas, as was the case with the conservative Republican-Democratic coalition that shaped the 2002 Senate districts. This year the state House easily redrew its districts in a bipartisan manner.

The real shows are yet to come, however, as would-be legislative Picassos draw imaginative boundaries that twist the basic redistricting standards of “compactness” and “communities of interest” to the extreme.

For example, there is House Speaker Mike O’Neal’s brilliant rendition, titled “Eisenhower,” which moves Wyandotte County into the First District, thus diluting its Democratic vote within the vastness of Republican western Kansas.

Or take uber-conservative Rep. Anthony Brown’s thoroughly weird “I-70” map, which divides the traditional “Big First” District and creates a Second District that runs from the southwest corner of the state to include all of Douglas County, thus negating Lawrence’s substantial Democratic vote (There’s a pattern here).  Brown’s map totally trumps the chicken project for pure artistic audacity.

State Sen. Tim Owens (R-Johnson County) comes off as a most versatile redistricting artist. He first drew a traditional landscape, which simply and fairly illustrates the four congressional districts (see “Sunflower 9c”).

But those notable art critics, the Kansas Chamber and state Republican Party, remained unimpressed and protested that Second District Republican Lynn Jenkins would lose 2 percent of her Republican base, leaving her with a mere 10-percent advantage. The horror! Almost as bad as the fate of those poor chickens.

The governor’s office and many Republicans want to ensure that Kansas will have four GOP House members for the next decade. Given overwhelming statewide Republican strength, however, the mad, if inventive, schemes put forth by O’Neal and Brown — which fail to account for legitimate “communities of interest” — should be nonstarters.

More to the point, why do Republican legislators worry about having Rep. Jenkins run in a clearly favorable Republican district? To ask this question is to answer it.

Reacting to the Chamber and GOP criticism of his U.S. House map, Sen. Owens created a surrealistic masterpiece of a state Senate map, giving conservative Republicans (who are backing a primary challenge to Owens) a serious case of heartburn by endangering many of them while protecting moderates.

The most important redistricting blue ribbon will be awarded to the ultimate state Senate map, in which both conservative and moderate Republicans, as well as Democrats, have an intense interest. Moreover, Speaker O’Neal entered the Senate fray this past week, stating that any Senate map passed by a narrow majority, presumably from moderate Republicans and Democrats, would be subject to review by the far more conservative House.

Such an action breaks all redistricting tradition and might endanger the Kansas House map while producing all-out warfare among ideological and partisan factions, as well as between the two chambers.

In the end, the courts could easily wield the paintbrush that draws the final lines, but only after four months of performance art will have crowded out serious legislating, leaving the session in shambles. On the bright side, no chickens will die.


Burdett Loomis, a KU professor of political science, is awaiting a map that divides Lawrence and Douglas County among all four congressional districts.

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