Last week, the Kansas legislature adjourned after a tumultuous year. Lawmakers passed Gov. Sam Brownback's dramatic tax cut plan, which could reduce the state budget by more than $2 billion over the next five years.
What they didn't do is set new geographic boundaries for congressional representatives, the state Senate, the state House and the Board of Education.
It's a task they're supposed to complete every ten years, after new census numbers come out to make sure there are still approximately the same number of voters in each district.
But this year, the job of redrawing the maps is now in the hands of three federal judges in Kansas City, Kansas. They heard nine hours of testimony last week from legislators and lawyers, and considered several maps. (Diehard political watchers can see the hearings -- they were videotaped for the court's new Cameras in Courtroom pilot program.)
DC-Style Politics Mixed With Kansas' Unique Three-Party System
The legislature failed to approve new maps for any of the bodies, but it was the state Senate boundaries that really brought lawmakers to a standstill, Kansas City Star political correspondent Steve Kraske, host of KCUR's Up To Date, told KCUR's Sylvia Maria Gross.
"From a macro standpoint, we're seeing Washington DC style politics come to the statehouses," Kraske said. "We've seen it in Jefferson City over the last few years and now we're seeing it more and more in Topeka."
Political wrangling between conservative and moderate Republicans had each faction drawing maps that left potential challengers out of an incumbent's district. The state Senate is currently led by moderate Republicans, but with the turnover of only two seats in the next election, it would swing to the conservatives, who are aligned with Governor Sam Brownback.
Taking It To The Courts
According to Kraske, taking this battle to the courts may be a blessing in a way for Kansas voters.
"In a sense this removes, at least, much of the politicking here, and in theory the judges are these non-partisan neutral observers," Kraske said. "Maybe they can draw fair and accurate maps that are free of some of this politicking and the hope here is that the state will be better off as a result."
Kraske expects that the debates will end with the court's decision, unless some issue arises that lends itself to a challenge all the way to the Supreme Court.
Secretary of State Kris Kobach says a decision needs to come in the next three weeks, or the state will have to postpone its August primaries. Even if it comes soon, the redistricting delay will benefit incumbents, Kraske said, because challengers (who don't know what district they're running in) won't have time to build a campaign, fundraise and develop name recognition.
Missouri's Not Much Better At Redistricting
Missouri's redistricting of congressional districts went to the Supreme Court, which took more than two months to approve new maps. That meant candidates had to file for office without knowing for sure what district they'd be running in.
"The Supreme Court threw a huge bouquet to incumbents and probably ensured all of their reelections by taking as long as they did to sign off on those maps," Kraske said.
Does Any State Get It Right?
Some states, like Iowa, use non-partisan commissions to draw these maps, and districts end up pretty even and square, keeping similar communities together, instead of squiggly and mis-shapen like in Missouri and Kansas. But here . . .
"The whole process is way, way out of control, I think," Kraske said.