Politicians you send to Topeka this November will slice and dice the entire state — into congressional and state legislative districts.
Gerrymandering is when politicians manipulate district boundaries for political gain: maximizing the seats that their side wins. Some lucky politicians even draw their own districts to guarantee re-election. This discourages competition and encourages politicians to only care about the minority of Kansans who vote in primaries.
Currently, Kansas is not gerrymandered. Courts drew the maps in the last redistricting because Republicans couldn’t agree among themselves on maps.
Our current maps are pretty clean. Districts generally follow county and city lines, keeping communities together. These maps have both preserved Republican majorities and created many competitive districts.
This year, both parties in DC are targeting legislative races throughout Kansas for redistricting. Realistically, Democrats cannot control Kansas redistricting. But with small gains in Topeka, they can preserve the status quo of Republican majorities and decent competition.
However, if Republicans keep their supermajority in Topeka, they can pass new statewide gerrymanders over the governor’s veto.
Why is DC so interested in Kansas? Congresswoman Sharice Davids. She represents the competitive 3rd District in the Kansas City suburbs. For Republicans to eliminate her, they may need to change the entire Kansas map.
In the last redistricting, Republicans proposed gerrymandering Kansas to make the 3rd District less competitive. But that required some interesting geographical marriages for the entire state in their map: Wyandotte County with northwest Kansas in one district, Johnson County with southeast Kansas, and Lawrence with southwest Kansas. Awkward, but that map accomplished shifting the Third District presidential margin 14 points more Republican.
That map ultimately didn’t happen, but something similar could after 2020 in a gerrymander. Given its population and voting trends, it could also be smart politics for Republicans to split Johnson County between multiple districts, each running far into rural Kansas.
Does Leawood go better with Girard, Dodge City or Salina? Truly neutralizing Johnson County voters may require Kansans statewide to accept such a map.
The Legislature can get gerrymandered, too. That could mean major map changes, including dissecting communities that have been problems for Republicans.
For example, take Newton. Lately, it voted Republican for president but Democratic for Kansas governor. In 2016, Newton voters replaced a Brownback conservative in Topeka with Tim Hodge, re-electing him in 2018.
How do you neutralize these bipartisan Newton voters? Split them. Right now, most all of Newton is in one compact and competitive district. But splitting Newton in half and combining each part with different rural communities creates two uncompetitive districts. And goodbye, Rep. Hodge.
Districts in Hays, Hutchinson, Atchison, Salina, Manhattan, Emporia, Pittsburg, Junction City, Garden City, Leavenworth, Wichita and Topeka either elected Democrats to the Legislature recently or voted Democratic for governor. Each community can easily be gerrymandered.
Conservative Republicans could also create an ideological gerrymander, eliminating moderate Republicans in rural Kansas through new districts. That is less certain than partisan gerrymandering, though.
For politicians, redistricting is about power. But for average Kansans, it’s about who represents you, who shares that politician with you, and who cancels out your vote. No matter who you support in legislative races, it’s fair for you to ask that candidate — especially Republicans angling for that supermajority — how wild they’ll get slicing and dicing you in the next Legislature.
Patrick Miller is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Kansas. He can be reached at email@example.com.