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A Kansas judge rejected a GOP-drawn congressional map for violating Black voters' rights

People voting at stand-up booths
Carlos Moreno
Voters cast their ballots at Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Kansas City, Kansas.

The judge ruled the recently drawn map violates provisions in the state constitution related to free speech, voting and equal protection rights to favor Republican candidates by putting parts of Wyandotte County and Lawrence in districts where Democrats have little chance to win.

KANSAS CITY, Kansas — A Wyandotte County judge struck down the state’s new congressional map, clearing the way for the Kansas Supreme Court to weigh in on how far politicians can go in gerrymandering political boundaries.

District Court Judge Bill Klapper ruled the map — drawn by the Republican-dominated Kansas Legislature — violates the rights of residents in Lawrence and Wyandotte County by watering down the influence of Black voting blocs to serve partisan ambitions.

Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt said in a press release Monday afternoon that the state filed an appeal.

In his ruling, Klapper said a gerrymandered map violates provisions in the state constitution related to free speech, voting and equal protection rights.

“The State has created classes of favored and disfavored voters, allowing voters of one party to elect their candidates of choice while denying that same right to voters of another,” Klapper wrote in the ruling. “The Kansas Constitution, which recognizes citizens’ right to political equality, stands as a bulwark against such legislative misconduct.”

Klapper ordered the Legislature to redraw a legal map.

Republican leaders in the Kansas House said in a joint statement they looked forward to an appeal.

“It is not surprising that a partisan Democrat judge sided with Laura Kelly's east coast special interest groups to usurp lawfully enacted maps approved by a supermajority of the people's representatives,” they said.

The ruling comes after a recent four-day trial where civil rights groups contended the map violates the state constitution.

They wanted the map thrown out because it reduces the influence of people of color by splitting Wyandotte County into separate districts, and because it lumps heavily Democratic Lawrence in a Republican-dominated district. They argued the map was drawn that way to benefit Republican candidates.

Meanwhile, the attorneys defending the map repeatedly asked for the case to be dismissed for lack of evidence. They also argued that there is no standard in Kansas to prove what is or isn’t gerrymandering and that the challengers could not prove a state law was broken.

“We are thankful that Judge Klapper saw this map for what it was — a deliberate attempt to silence the political voices of Democratic and minority Kansans,” Sharon Brett, legal director for the ACLU of Kansas, said in an email. “Although we know this case is not over yet, we look forward to settling this issue and securing the rights of our clients in the Kansas Supreme Court.”

The ruling is historic because the Kansas judicial system has never before considered political or racial gerrymandering. An appeal to the Kansas Supreme Court sets up the state’s highest court to issue a landmark ruling on the matter.

During the trial, several political scientists testified on behalf of the challengers, all presenting different types of statistical analysis highlighting how the map was gerrymandered.

Political scientist Christopher Warshaw of George Washington University showed the changes to Wyandotte County and Lawrence cut the chances of a Democratic candidate winning a Kansas seat to the U.S. House nearly in half.

Then Patrick Miller of the University of Kansas presented data showing the most racially diverse portion of Wyandotte County was cut out of the 3rd District, which represents the Kansas City area, into the 2nd District which represents most of eastern Kansas and favors Republicans. He said the changes to Wyandotte County made the voices of the racially diverse voters there “basically irrelevant.”

In defense of the map, attorneys representing the state also called on political scientists to testify that the statistical analyses presented to the court were not convincing or not valid.

Additionally, John Alford of Rice University testified that Kansas' new congressional districts weren’t gerrymandered because the changes were “modest.” He also said the map could not be considered to be gerrymandered because a Democratic candidate could still be competitive in the 3rd District, the district at the heart of the case.

However, at one point during the trial, Klapper called the evidence that political and racial gerrymandering had occurred “overwhelming.” But he said the question of the trial was whether that means the map is a violation of the state constitution.

Dylan Lysen reports on politics for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @DylanLysen or email him at dlysen (at) kcur (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

As the Kansas social services and criminal justice reporter, I want to inform our audience about how the state government wants to help its residents and keep their communities safe. Sometimes that means I follow developments in the Legislature and explain how lawmakers alter laws and services of the state government. Other times, it means questioning the effectiveness of state programs and law enforcement methods. And most importantly, it includes making sure the voices of everyday Kansans are heard. You can reach me at dlysen@kcur.org, 816-235-8027 or on Threads, @DylanLysen.
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