FRANKFORT, Ky. (Aug. 23, 2013) — Most folks have only a vague idea of what ‘redistricting’ means, and how, really, it personally affects them. It’s not like a proposed tax increase or something hugely controversial like, say, casino gambling or legalizing pot. It’s political inside baseball to the average person. But within any legislative body, anywhere, it’s the World Series. It has huge personal and political significance. The stakes cannot be overstated.
Couple of quotes:
“Redistricting is one of the purest political actions a legislative body can take.”
That’s from John Engler, a former governor of Michigan. What he meant was, drawing districts can determine what party controls a chamber. The history of that is bald, harsh, true, and consistent, wherever representative democracy exists.
Some call it objectionable, raw partisan politics. But representative democracy is, by its very nature, partisan, as ours has been since the earliest days of the Republic. The Founders knew it would be that way, and warned against it – Madison in Federalist #10 wanted to ‘break and control (partisanship),’ — but his effort was futile, and his and others’ cautions collapsed almost immediately. Party control through reapportionment has been the rule, rather than the exception, on every level of legislative government through our history.
Plus it’s personal. Sometimes painfully so.
“It gets very personal, when lines are redrawn so you lose longtime constituents you’ve built a bond with over the years, been friends with, know by face and name, and you now have to start over in unfamiliar ground – or even have to move your residence because your district has been moved dramatically.”
That’s from a longtime surveyor of the legislative landscape who’s seen many redistrictings over 30 years, the political and personal pain they create, and the court interventions they frequently draw – as the most recent attempt did, in 2012.
At bottom, redistricting seems simple. The central concept is “one person, one vote,” which means we all have roughly the same voice in Frankfort (our legislature) or Washington (Congress).
That means districts have to be more or less equal in population. But other factors also enter in, including cohesiveness – counties shouldn’t (the law says) be split unless absolutely necessary, and gerrymandering (stringing geographically and culturally unrelated counties together in odd combinations to give one party an advantage) is considered, judicially, a no-no.
It’s a complex technical task anyway, but with partisan politics dribbled freely into the mix, it often becomes a witch’s brew of facts, near-facts, guesses, and motives only speculative that end up, often, in court, challenged by one aggrieved party or another, or several. The most recent Kentucky plan, passed in 2012, ran quickly aground in the state Supreme Court.
But this week, on a third try, the Kentucky General Assembly met, this time in special session, and in the minimum five days required to pass a bill, put forth and passed a plan that – given the near-impossible challenges facing them – probably raised fewer obvious objections than any in recent memory.
The redrawn lines would create four new House districts and pair eight incumbents in four other districts – four Democrats and four Republicans, an even split — numbers considered fairly negligible in any case.
Still, not everyone’s happy. But no one ever is, entirely, in this bloodiest of political processes. Yet it did pass both chambers with overwhelming majorities. On its face, it seems to address the judicial objections to the first proposal in 2012, which was basically that too many counties were split. Any assumption of court approval, of course, remains in the air. This is where reporters resort to the clichéd shibboleth ‘Stay tuned.’
Two-thirds of the House’s minority Republicans, including all its leadership, voted yea on the bill. Only two House Democrats voted no, mostly on concerns that fast-growing areas were being chopped up too drastically. As redistricting goes, this proved as close to consensus as we’re ever likely to get.
The bill blew through the House like a gale Wednesday, on an 83-17 vote — a harbinger that the special session would indeed end Friday, with full expectation of quick Senate approval (its plan seems well-received by the chamber) and the near-certainty that Gov. Steve Beshear would sign it into law posthaste.
Once again, this iteration of the Kentucky General Assembly has shown its ability to get hard things done, harmoniously. Some say Congress should look to Kentucky for schooling on how to govern with a split-party government. Here, in the Commonwealth, right now, it’s working.
Jefferson, as always, nailed it cold:
“We have no interests nor passions different from our fellow citizens. We have the same objective: the success of representative government … Our experiment is to show whether man can be trusted with self-government.”
It’s still an American question after more than 200 years. But the answer this week in Frankfort was: Yes.
With session’s adjournment, the interim committee study period resumes. A full 60-day budget session will convene in the Capitol this coming Jan.7, 2014. As always, you can leave a message for your legislator at 1-800-372-7181. The LRC website, www.lrc.ky.gov, is a wealth of legislative information, including meeting schedules and pre-filed bills.