Democrats, ACLU sue over new Kansas congressional districts

John Hanna and Roxana Hegeman
Associated Press

Topeka, Kan. – Democrats, a civil rights group and a national elections watchdog filed two lawsuits Monday against Kansas officials over a Republican redistricting law that costs the state’s only Democrat in Congress some of the territory in her Kansas City-area district that she carries by wide margins in elections.

Both lawsuits were filed in Wyandotte County District Court in the Kansas City area, on behalf of aggrieved voters. Both sue Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab, a Republican and the state’s top elections official.

Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab answers questions from reporters, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan.

Kansas is part of a broader national battle over redrawing congressional districts. Republicans hope to recapture a U.S. House majority in this year’s elections, and both parties are watching states’ redistricting efforts because they could help either pick up or defend individual seats.

The Associated Press left a message seeking comment from Schwab and sent emails seeking comment Monday from Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, this year’s presumed Republican nominee for governor. Schmidt said last week that his office is prepared to defend the new boundaries “against any partisan political lawsuits that long have been threatened.”

The Kansas redistricting law removes the northern part of Kansas City, Kansas, from the 3rd District that U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids represents and puts it in the neighboring 2nd District, which includes the state capital of Topeka but also rural communities across eastern Kansas. Kansas City is among Republican-leaning Kansas’ few Democratic strongholds.

“The dominant party manipulates the district boundaries to dilute the voting power of the minority party’s voters,” said one lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and the Washington-based Campaign Legal Center.

Republicans have defended all of their moves as necessary to make the state’s four congressional districts as close in population in possible after a decade of population shifts. Under the law, each district has the ideal population of 734,470 residents.

One lawsuit was filed by prominent Democratic attorney Marc Elias’ firm. Elias has been involved in lawsuits in multiple states, including Georgia, North Carolina and Ohio. His firm represents five voters and a Kansas voting-rights group, Loud Light, and sued both Schwab and the election commissioner for Kansas City, Kansas.

Shortly afterward, the ACLU and Campaign Legal Center filed their lawsuit on behalf of 11 voters against Schwab.

The new redistricting law took effect last week after the GOP-controlled Legislature overrode Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto of it. Both lawsuits allege the new lines violate the Kansas Constitution’s guarantee of voting rights, as well as equal rights for all residents and freedom of speech and assembly and voting rights.

The lawsuits argue that Republicans set out to gerrymander Davids out of her seat, then diluted the clout of Black and Hispanic voters by cutting their numbers in her district. They also argue that the new map is unacceptable because it fails to keep the core of the state’s side of the Kansas City area in a single district.

The redistricting law also moved the liberal northeast Kansas city of Lawrence – another Democratic stronghold and home to the main University of Kansas campus – out of the 2nd District. The city of 95,000 about 40 miles (64 kilometers) west of Kansas is now in the already sprawling 1st District of central and western Kansas with small conservative communities, some six hours away by car.

“It unnecessarily and inexplicably shifts large numbers of Kansans out of their prior districts, with no population-based need or other legitimate justification,” the Elias group’s lawsuit alleges.

As evidence of Republicans’ intentions, both lawsuits quote comments to a Republican gathering in September 2020 by then-retiring Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle. She said if Republicans won legislative supermajorities – which they did – GOP lawmakers could see that that Republicans captured all four Kansas congressional districts.

“I guarantee you,” she said in remarks captured on video.

The Kansas City area has too many residents for a single congressional district. Republicans opted to split more diverse Kansas City, Kansas, rather than whiter and wealthier suburbs to the south because those suburbs have never been divided between two districts.

GOP lawmakers also rejected criticism of the map as racial gerrymandering, noting that while the percentages of Black and Hispanic voters dropped in the 3rd District, they increased in the 2nd. They argued that even with the new lines, Davids would have won in 2020.

For decades, lawsuits over congressional redistricting in Kansas have been filed in federal court and decided by a panel of three federal judges. But in 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that complaints of partisan gerrymandering are political issues and not for federal courts to resolve.

The Kansas Supreme Court traditionally has not reviewed congressional maps, and the state constitution doesn’t deal specifically with congressional redistricting. But some lawyers argue that fact doesn’t prevent the Kansas Supreme Court from weighing in.

Some Democrats hope that the Kansas courts will limit or prohibit partisan gerrymandering or set other guidelines that doom the GOP map. Five of the Kansas Supreme Court’s seven justices were appointed by Democratic governors, including three by Kelly.

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Hegeman reported from Belle Plaine.