On Thursday, June 7, just four days before the June 11 filing deadline for candidates, a three-judge federal panel hit the “reset” button on legislative districts in Kansas. The federal court’s redrawing of congressional, state Board of Education, and House and Senate maps came after Kansas lawmakers failed to do so before adjourning. The federal court’s actions created a number of winners and losers.
The big winners from the Legislature’s fiasco are the federal judges and Kansas voters. The three judges deserve high marks for the way they conducted themselves. They rightfully took the necessary time to gather relevant testimony, ignoring the advice of Secretary of State Kris Kobach to limit it. After hearing the facts, the judges acted decisively to rectify the Legislature’s abdication of its responsibility. Their order did leave only four days for the parties to recruit candidates to run, but the Legislature is to blame for the compressed timeline, not the federal judges.
Voters are also big winners. Compared to both the previous district configurations and all of the proposed new district boundaries, the federal judges’ maps went the extra mile to create compact and equally populated districts that protect communities of interest and minority voters. Most districts now look like shapes we might recognize; moreover, they don’t arbitrarily divide urban and suburban communities to boost the re-election prospects of incumbent legislators. The district boundaries have not shifted this much since the mid-1960s, when the U.S. Supreme Court enforced one-man, one-vote principles on all state legislatures.
Voters would not have been such big winners but for the candidate recruitment activities of the Republican and Democratic state and local party organizations. Faced with severe time constraints — only three and a half days in reality — the parties and their affiliated groups did a masterful job filling candidate slates. At least one Republican has filed for election in all but six state House districts and in all state Senate districts. Republicans usually contest just over 90 percent of state legislative seats. Democrats found candidates for all but 33 of 125 state House districts (74 percent) and for all but nine state Senate districts (78 percent). The minority Democrats usually contest just over 60 percent of legislative seats. Much to her credit, state Democratic Party chair Joan Wagnon was ready to move once the new district boundaries were in place.
The actions of the federal judges did not ease intra-party strife among the establishment Republicans (Rs) and the socially and economically conservative Republicans (R2s). In the Kansas House, 56 of the 125 districts will have a Republican primary. By comparison, in the 1990s, there were typically fewer than 12 contested GOP house primaries. In the Kansas Senate, 29 of 40 districts will have GOP primaries, compared to a maximum of five in the 1990s.
Democracy — with a capital D — can’t flourish without candidates competing for elections. The parties and their affiliated groups made sure that voters in most districts will have a choice in the primaries or general elections. Voters win again.
The big losers were numerous incumbents and the Republican leadership in both legislative chambers. In drawing the new districts, the judges didn’t just “subordinate” the legislative directive to avoid pairing incumbents into a single district whenever possible, they ignored it. The judges created 25 open House seats (no incumbent from either party) and four open seats in the Senate. Based on candidate filings and retirements, my colleague and co-author, Ed Flentje of Wichita State University, estimates that the House will have no fewer than 50 new members and the Senate will have no fewer than seven new members. We have rarely seen this level of turnover in the history of the Kansas Legislature.
Over the next two months, money will flow freely into the contested GOP primary races, especially in Senate primaries that pit the Rs against R2s. Whatever the outcome of these primaries, the federal judges effectively pushed the reset button for Kansas legislative districts. In so doing, they have already fundamentally altered the political topography of the state.
Joseph A. Aistrup is a professor of Political Science at Kansas State University.