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Kansas Supreme Court upholds GOP-drawn congressional map

Both the lower court and the state's Democratic governor had called the map a racial and partisan gerrymander.

(CN) — The Kansas Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the new congressional map approved by the Republican-led Legislature is constitutional, overruling the objections of both the governor and the lower court which found the map represented a racial and partisan gerrymander.

In a written statement, a spokesman for the ACLU of Kansas, one of the plaintiffs in the case, called the ruling a "stunning blow."

"Equal protection under our state’s constitution is supposed to mean something," said Sharon Brett, legal director for the ACLU of Kansas. "But as a result of this decision, minority voters and Democratic voters will have their voices diluted for the next 10 years."

In a written statement, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt said: "It is regrettable that Kansas taxpayers have had to bear the unnecessary cost of successfully defending the duly enacted congressional reapportionment against multiple lawsuits backed by out-of-state activists. I am grateful for the expeditious manner in which the court announced the outcome of the cases, and this year’s candidate filings and election preparations can now proceed.”

Every 10 years following the census, legislative districts across the country must be redrawn to ensure that everyone's vote carries more or less equal weight. This process of "redistricting" is often controlled by the legislative bodies themselves, and is often highly political. Incumbents often try to get districts drawn to hand them an easy path toward reelection. Political parties often try to give themselves healthy majorities by, say, splitting up a region densely populated with voters registered to the other party. So-called "partisan gerrymandering" is seen as an important front in the increasingly bitter divide between Republicans and Democrats in Washington, where every congressional seat counts.

Some states, like California, have passed reforms handing control of the redistricting process over to an independent commission. But for the most part, redistricting is still controlled by politicians.

Kansas has four congressional seats, three of which are classified by the website FiveThirtyEight as "Republican-leaning" and the fourth is described as "highly competitive." The new map does not significantly alter that balance. It does, however, divide both the city of Lawrence and Wyandotte County into separate districts.

The map, known as "Ad Astra 2," was vetoed by Democratic Governor Laura Kelly, who said it diluted "minority communities’ voting strength."

The Kansas Legislature voted to override the veto. The Democratic Party, the ACLU and a few other groups then filed a lawsuit seeking to bar the state from implementing the new maps.

"This case is about politicians choosing their voters by manipulating district lines to secure their preferred electoral outcomes— despite the will of Kansas voters and at the expense of the political power of minority communities," the plaintiffs said in the suit.

In April, Wyandotte County Judge Bill Klapper ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, blocking Kansas from using the new map. The 209-page ruling, which found room to quote both the Buddha and the rock band Kansas, found that "Ad Astra 2 has the effect of diluting minority vote strength by exporting minority voters out of the district in which they have the best opportunity to elect their preferred candidate."

It is something of a surprise that the Supreme Court overruled Klapper's decision, considering that five out of seven of its members were appointed by Democrats. It is unknown if any of the justices dissented from the opinion, which was delivered by Justice Caleb Stegall, one of two Republican appointees. A full decision, along with concurrences and dissents, will be forthcoming.

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