While we have never seen the results of any polls on the issue, we have little doubt that a clear majority of registered voters in Kentucky would support Common Cause Kentucky’s call for the creation of an independent, nonpartisan commission to redraw the boundaries of the state’s six congressional districts and of the 38 districts in the Kentucky Senate and the 100 districts in the Kentucky House of Representatives soon after the completion of the U.S. census each decade.
But among members of the Kentucky General Assembly support for the creation of an independent redistricting commission is weak. In fact, the leaders of the General Assembly in both parties see nothing wrong with the way redistricting now is done. In fact, they view redistricting as an opportunity to reconfigure congressional and legislative districts to benefit their party.
That’s why the chances of state legislators approving the creation of an independent commission to redraw the boundaries of the legislative districts are nil. Gov. Steve Beshear has called the Kentucky General Assembly to convene in special session on Aug. 19 to again try to approve plan that will withstand a court challenge, something they failed to do in 2012.
And while the exact boundaries of the new districts have yet to be determined, we know now what they will entail. The Republicans majority in the Kentucky Senate will determine the boundaries of the 38 Senate districts, while the Democrat majority in the state House of Representatives will determine the boundaries of the 100 House districts. In addition to creating districts that are within 5 percent of having equal population, the new district plans also will be drawn in hopes of increasing the Republican majority in the Senate and the Democrat majority in the House. That’s just the way politics is played in Frankfort, and always has been. It’s not likely to change.
Richard Beliles, chairman of Common Cause Kentucky, an independent government watchdog group, said he believes lawmakers have grown tired of the bickering over redistricting and may finally be ready to consider creating a commission, an idea being used in several other states but that has never gotten enough support to pass in Kentucky.
“Republicans and Democrats are fighting and the public interest is hurt by this,” Beliles said. “Good government is always held up by this darn stuff. What we need is a commission of nonpartisan geographers to draw these lines.”
Beliles is right that the political battle over redistricting can hamper government. When the 2012 General Assembly approved a new redistricting plan for the state legislature, the new district boundaries were so blatantly drawn to benefit the Republican majority in the Senate and the Democrat majority in the House, those in the minority were so angered by the redistricting plan that it impacted the rest of the 2012 General Assembly.
In a perfect world, redistricting would be a rather simple process that would change existing district boundaries as little as possible in order to make the population of each district within 5 percent of being identical, but this is not a perfect world, and one of the goals of each redistricting plan is to benefit the majority party.
In 2012, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that the redistricting plans approved for the House and Senate failed to meet population guidelines and voided those plans. Legislators will try again during the August special session. Beshear said he wants the redistricting plan in place before the end of the year so redistricting does not affect legislative business like it did in 2012.
“Redistricting is inherently political, and there’s no such a thing as a nonpartisan or bipartisan commission that can do that independently of influence,” said Rep. David Floyd, R-Bardstown. “People who believe that will be disappointed. So it’s important that it remain with the General Assembly. It’s our constitutional responsibility and we should not shirk it.”
We have little doubt that legislators will not “shirk” their responsibilities by letting an independent body redraw district lines. However, redistricting should be based more on population changes and not politics. Can legislators put the needs of the people first and create new district boundaries where neighbors with common interest live? Frankly, at this point we’re doubtful. Legislators have toyed with redistricting for almost two years. In August they have what may be their last chance to do it right.