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Kansas Republicans sued on claims of partisan gerrymandering

The new congressional map imperils the state’s only Democrat on Capitol Hill by splitting the Kansas City area between conservative districts.

(CN) — Democrats and the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas filed lawsuits against the Kansas secretary of state Monday claiming the state’s new congressional map is a partisan gerrymander.

The new map became official last week when the Republican-controlled Legislature narrowly rallied enough votes to override a veto of the map by Democratic Governor Laura Kelly. The map splits the Kansas City metropolitan area, which the ACLU’s suit refers to as “an extreme and intentional partisan and racial gerrymander of the state’s congressional districts” in violation of the Kansas Constitution.

With many of the minority voters around Kansas City split between districts, the map shifts the state’s competitive Third Congressional District toward Republicans and imperils the electoral future of Rep. Sharice Davids, the only Democratic legislator from Kansas on Capitol Hill.

According to FiveThirtyEight’s redistricting tracker, the partisan lean of the district went from four points in favor of Democrats to three points in favor of Republicans. The plaintiffs in both suits are Democratic voters, many of them from racial and ethnic minority groups. Both suits claim that Wyandotte County, the only “majority-minority” county in Kansas, is divided for the first time in 40 years under the new map to dilute the power of voters of color to choose their preferred candidates.

The plaintiffs in both suits also claim that the maps are purposely and unfairly drawn to move the city of Lawrence, home to the University of Kansas, into a staunchly conservative district that extends hundreds of miles to the state’s western border. The suit filed by youth civic participation organization Loud Light and the National Redistricting Foundation further claims that the new map splits the state’s main Native American reservations into two districts and splinters “Kansas’s significant military population by separating Fort Leavenworth and Fort Riley.”

Davids is one of two Native American women currently serving in Congress and the first out lesbian elected to Congress from Kansas. She won reelection in 2020 by 10 points. The lawsuits include quotes from Susan Wagle, the former president of the Kansas Senate, as evidence that Republicans intended to deliberately gerrymander Davids out of her seat during redistricting with their supermajority in the Legislature.

“A Republican bill that gives us four Republican congressmen, that takes out Sharice Davids up in the Third — we can do that,” Wagle, a Republican, said ahead of the 2020 redistricting cycle. “I guarantee you we can draw four Republican congressional maps.”

Marina Jenkins, director of litigation and policy for the National Redistricting Foundation, decried the Republican-drawn maps in a statement.

“Republican legislators made it abundantly clear from start to finish that they were gerrymandering themselves to their desired political outcome, no matter whose rights they were trampling along the way,” Jenkins said. “Their map meticulously cracks apart communities across the state, diluting the votes and voices of Democrats, young people and communities of color — communities whose votes are apparently inconvenient to Republican interests.”

Though population growth means the entire Kansas City metropolitan area cannot remain in a single congressional district — districts are meant to be roughly equal in population — the plaintiffs contend that the area is a “single community of interest” that should be left as intact as possible.

“The interconnectedness of this dense, urban community creates shared social and cultural values and experiences for the residents of Wyandotte and northern Johnson Counties,” said the plaintiffs represented by the ACLU.

Both sets of plaintiffs also contend the Legislature dismissed community concerns and lacked transparency during the map-drawing process.

“This map is the product of a rushed legislative process that ignored the expressed concerns of hundreds of Kansans who spoke out at town halls and during hearings,” said Sharon Brett, legal director of the ACLU of Kansas, in a statement. “It is a brazen attempt to drown the political voices of Black, urban voters in a sea of white, rural voters for partisan gains.”

Derek Schmidt, the Kansas attorney general who is running for governor in 2022, did not respond to a request for comment on the particular gerrymandering lawsuits, but Schmidt did release a statement pledging to defend the maps against any lawsuits after the Legislature overrode Kelly’s veto.

“At its heart, the once-per-decade redistricting process is about ensuring every person’s vote counts,” Schmidt said. “The newly enacted congressional boundaries do that, and we are prepared to vigorously defend them against any partisan political lawsuits that long have been threatened.”

Partisan gerrymandering cases end up mainly in state courts since the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly declined to take them up. Racial gerrymandering claims may still make their way through the federal courts, though the justices declined to block Alabama’s GOP-friendly congressional map that a lower court found unconstitutionally diluted the voices of the state’s Black voters.

However, state high courts in Ohio and North Carolina have invalidated Republican-drawn maps as partisan gerrymanders. The plaintiffs in Kansas likely aim for a similar result from the Kansas Supreme Court, where five of the seven justices were appointed by Democratic governors.

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