Why new political maps could give more power to Kansas college towns

Local

Abigail Censky, KCUR

For decades college towns like Lawrence, Manhattan and Emporia lost the political power of their students when it came to state legislative districts. This year things are different.

LAWRENCE, Kan. (Kansas News Service) — For the first time in more than 30 years, Kansas will count all of its college students in the towns where they go to school for redrawing state legislative districts next year.

Since 1990, Lawrence, Manhattan, Emporia and other college towns lost out on the potential political clout those students represented in an archaic and costly census readjustment aimed at preserving rural political power.

“I never really expected (the change) to happen,” said Davis Hammet, who leads the Loud Light group focused on mobilizing young voters.

“I remember like, six, seven years ago reading the Kansas Constitution and thinking about how getting rid of this census adjustment would be one of the most important things for the youth vote and for representative democracy in Kansas,” he said.

Yet in 2019, an overwhelming majority of Kansas voters and a bipartisan group of state lawmakers agreed with Hammet — voting for Kansas to stop spending additional money to readjust the U.S. Census count on college campuses and military bases. Kansas passed a constitutional amendment ending the practice.

Now, communities like Manhattan and Lawrence, home to the state’s largest universities, can expect a louder voice in the Legislature. Still, the power of university towns across Kansas will largely depend on how Republicans controlling the process draw the districts.

“Even if places like Lawrence in Manhattan get a bit more representation, those lines can still be drawn politically,” said Patrick Miller, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas.

Which is, essentially, “however the Republican majority in Topeka wants,” he said.

But Republicans risk blowback if their maps appear too cynically drawn to sap Democrats of Statehouse influence.

The proposed redistricting guidelines for 2022 indicate a state House district should have roughly 23,504 people and a state Senate District should have roughly 73,447 people. Deviations from those ideal numbers shouldn’t be greater than 5% in most cases.

Now that students are included in the district population totals, the two Lawrence area districts, represented by Democratic Reps. Christina Haswood and Mike Amyx, have too many people for one district.

Haswood said she worries the pandemic means some students who would’ve ordinarily been on campus weren’t there to be counted.

“We’re really not capturing a good year,” she said.

Population gain maps compiled by the Kansas Legislative Research Department show Haswood’s district needs to trim out 1,554 too many people and Amyx’s district must lose 6,892.

The same surplus exists for House districts in Riley County. Students at Kansas State University bump numbers in House District 66 to roughly 8,000 people more than the ideal range, and nearly 3,000 people above the ideal range in House District 67.

All of those people will have to go into new districts or be added to districts which are redrawn to include people leftover from districts like Haswood’s and Amyx’s.

State Senate districts in both Douglas and Riley counties have roughly 12,000 too many people. Miller said smaller college towns like Emporia, Hays and Pittsburg could also potentially gain representation, but he said, “the lines can still be drawn in ways that offset that and advantage Republicans.”

That could mean new seats for the Lawrence and Manhattan area, or districts that take some population gains and stretch farther out into nearby rural areas.

“You start messing with one district and it affects several others as you go through the process,” said Republican Rep. Mark Schreiber, who represents a district including Emporia State. Schrieber’s district needs to add 490 people, but he said he’s not worried about the change.

“It’s a big puzzle,” Schreiber said, “that’s what they’re charged to come up with.”

Haswood said she’s hopeful the maps will be drawn in good faith, but “this is politics and we all will be fighting to ensure gerrymandering does not happen.”

Even if college towns gain more representation, it’s not likely to yield anything but a marginal benefit to Democrats or seriously endanger any Republican incumbents.

In fact, communities like Manhattan and Lawrence could wind up getting more representation thanks to students yet walk away from the 2022 redistricting cycle with an overall more Republican district because of how lines are drawn.

“That is absolutely a realistic scenario,” Miller said.

Abigail Censky is the political reporter for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @AbigailCensky or email her at abigailcensky@kcur.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.

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