TOPEKA, Kan. >> Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly on Thursday vetoed a Republican redistricting plan that would make it harder for the lone Kansas Democrat in Congress to win reelection this year.
Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature vowed to try to override Kelly’s veto, and they appeared to be close to having the two-thirds majorities in both chambers that they would need. But if they do, the new lines are likely to be challenged in federal and possibly state court.
The measure would split the state’s portion of the Kansas City area into two congressional districts, costing Democratic U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids some of the territory in her 3rd District where she performs best. The map also would move the liberal northeast Kansas community of Lawrence, home to the main University of Kansas campus, from the 2nd District of eastern Kansas into the 1st District of central and western Kansas with conservative communities six or more hours away by car.
Kelly’s veto message repeated Democratic legislators’ criticism of the plan, arguing that it violates guidelines set by the courts and lawmakers themselves aimed at protecting “communities of interest” and not diluting minority voters’ clout
“I am ready to work with the Legislature in a bipartisan fashion to pass a new congressional map,” Kelly’s message said. “Together, we can come to a consensus and pass a compromise that empowers all people of Kansas.”
While Kelly portrayed her action as enabling bipartisanship, it comes with Republicans hoping to regain a U.S. House majority in this year’s elections and looking to recapture heavily suburban districts like Davids’.
Top GOP lawmakers were less conciliatory than Kelly, having said previously that they are confident Republicans can override a veto.
The Kansas House’s GOP leaders issued a statement accusing Kelly of bowing to the American Civil Liberties Union, which with other groups urged her Wednesday to veto the plan. They also described Kelly as “beholden to New York special interests,” a reference to the home state of Democratic U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Top Kansas Senate Republicans said the GOP plan is “politically fair, keeping all four members of Congress within their current seats.”
Republicans argued that Davids still can win reelection, based on voting in the 2020 elections. They said they simply followed past federal court mandates for all districts to be as equal in population as possible after population shifts over the past 10 years. The GOP plan gives each district the ideal population of 734,470.
The new map would reduce the percentage of minority voters in the 3rd District by moving the northern part of Kansas City, Kansas, into the 2nd District. Republicans defended the split because the percentage of minority voters would increase in the 2nd District.
But Stacey Knoell, the executive director for the Kansas African American Affairs Commission, rejected Republican lawmakers’ argument about diversity improving in the 2nd District because Lawrence would move out.
“The map looks like it’s struggling,” Knoell said.
The state’s side of the Kansas City area has about 33,000 too many people for a single congressional district. Republicans argued that lawmakers shouldn’t divide the faster-growing suburbs south of Kansas City, Kansas, and made I-70 roughly the boundary between the 2nd and 3rd Districts.
But the move separates minority neighborhoods rather than whiter suburbs. Kelly claimed the move came “without explanation.”
“When you drive on I-70 and you look on either side of the highway, the neighborhoods look the same,” said Thomas Alonzo, a lifelong Kansas City, Kansas, resident and chair of the LGBTQ-rights group equality Kansas. “The houses look the same.”
Democrats also argued that Lawrence has little in common with rural western Kansas, and Kelly suggested western Kansas would lose clout if it’s tied to Lawrence.
Republicans argued said minority residents in Lawrence fit well with three southwest Kansas counties known for meatpacking plants, where white, non-Hispanic residents are now a minority. They also argued that the change for Lawrence is acceptable because it would put the main University of Kansas and Kansas State University campuses into the same district.