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Attorneys for voters saw redistricting law is gerrymandering

April 11, 2022 GMT

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — A newly redrawn Kansas congressional map is partisan gerrymandering designed to cost the state’s only Democrat in Congress some of her territory and drown out the voices of minority voters, attorneys representing voters in two heavily affected counties argued in closing arguments Monday.

The state defended the law, arguing that a Kansas City area district now held by U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids would remain competitive. Davids has gained national attention for her unusual resume as an LGBT and Native American lawyer and mixed-martial arts fighter.

Wyandotte County District Court Judge Bill Klapper said he would rule by April 25 at the latest. Regardless of what he decides, Klapper acknowledges that the case is destined for the Kansas Supreme Court.

The new redistricting law took effect in February after the GOP-controlled Legislature overrode Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto of it.

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It removes the northern part of Kansas City, Kansas, from Davids’ 3rd District seat 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 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 is now in the already sprawling 1st District of central and western Kansas with small conservative communities, some six hours away by car.

Three lawsuits were filed on behalf of voters and consolidated into a single case. With so many parties involved, the courtroom overflowed with attorneys seeking to set new precedents. Federal courts can no longer rule on cases alleging partisan gerrymandering after a 2019 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. That means the Kansas lawsuits ask state courts to declare that the map violate the state Constitution’s guarantee of voting rights, equal rights for all residents and freedom of speech and assembly.

Sharon Brett, an ACLU attorney representing voters in Wyandotte County, said the map maximizes Republican gains “no matter the cost.”

“Diluted votes,” she stressed, “are not equal votes.”

She cited the work of Jowei Chen, a professor at the University of Michigan, who programmed a computer to simulate 1,000 maps. Among them, a little more than half, kept all of populous Johnson County in the 3rd District, which was a legislative priority. He testified earlier Monday that the map ultimately approved by lawmakers was an “extreme partisan outlier,” more GOP favorable than any of the simulated maps that kept Johnson County intact.

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As evidence of Republicans’ intentions, the 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 ensure that Republicans captured all four Kansas congressional districts.

“She passed the baton,” Brett said, “and her colleagues carried it across the finish line.”

Curtis Woods, who is representing voters in Douglas County, said lawmakers engaged in “machinations” and a “shell game” to move the liberal university community to a largely rural district that he said has little in common with it. He urged Klapper to perform what he described as the “eyeball test.”

Tony Rupp, a private practice attorney representing the state, disputed that the map amounted to gerrymandering, saying the 3rd district is “barely a Republican district” despite the changes and one that “anyone can win.”

He noted that John Alford, a political science professor at Rice University, testified that the district is only “slightly more competitive” under the new map.

Rupp said it was always going to be impossible to avoid making big changes in the Kansas City area because it recorded some of the state’s largest population gains.

“We would ask that you not stop into the political thicket and overrule this map,” he urged of the judge.