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Kentucky Republicans In Charge Of Redistricting For First Time

Ryland Barton

With the conclusion of the 2020 Census, Kentucky and states across the nation will soon begin the process of redistricting—redrawing the boundaries of congressional and legislative districts to account for shifts in population since the last census.

In Kentucky, the legislature is responsible for drawing new district boundaries. And for the first time in state history, Republicans will be in charge of the entire process.

But before we get into the politics of redistricting, let’s talk about the demographics of it.

States have to redistrict every 10 years because people are constantly moving, or dying, or getting born. But even as populations shift in Kentucky, legislative districts are supposed to represent an equal number of people.

Kentucky’s population is currently about 4.47 million people and that total has to be evenly divided.

That means each district in the 100-member state House of Representatives should have about 44,700 people, each district in the 38-member state Senate should have about 117,000 people and each of Kentucky’s six Congressional districts should have 745,000 people.

But remember, because people are constantly moving, or dying, or getting born, the boundaries of those districts have to change every now and then to make sure each one has a roughly equal number of people.

Ron Crouch, the former executive director of the Kentucky State Data Center at the University of Louisville, says the story of the last 10  years is a familiar one: rural areas are losing population and urban ones are gaining.

“We’ve got many counties in Kentucky, about half the counties, have more people dying than being born,” Crouch said.

Most of the population growth is centered along the state’s interstate corridors.

And that trend will likely force the legislature to consolidate some rural districts in order to make room for urban ones, where populations have been increasing.

Now for the politics.

Rep. Joni Jenkins, a Democrat from Louisville and House Minority Leader, said it’ll be a challenge for Republicans to redraw the map and protect all their seats at the same time.

“It will give the majority party much more hoops to jump through to please all of their members,” Jenkins said.

“I remember being a member of a 70-person caucus. It’s really hard to make 70 people happy.”

Democrats were largely in control of Kentucky’s redistricting process following the 2010 Census.

Though Republicans controlled the state Senate, the state House of Representatives was controlled by Democrats and Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear occupied the Governor’s Mansion.

But since 2017, Republicans have had supermajority control of both the state House and Senate, and a Kentucky governor’s veto can be easily overridden by a majority of votes from the two  chambers.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, a Republican from Georgetown, said that some of the current districts are “way out of conformity” and that he’s happy his party will be in charge of redistricting this time.

“One thing we know in both the House and the Senate is the population in both western and eastern Kentucky is shrinking,” Thayer said. “People are moving to the areas along the interstates: Lexington, Louisville, Bowling Green and Northern Kentucky.”

In addition to keeping district populations equal, legislators also have to avoid breaking counties apart into districts when possible and they must abide by the Voting Rights Act, which bars legislators from drawing districts that break up cohesive minority blocs.

Because of coronavirus-related delays, census officials aren’t yet sure when they’re going to get states the data they need to begin the redistricting process.

Earlier this month they said they’d try to get it out to states as close to the March 31st deadline as possible.

But that’ll likely be after the conclusion of next year’s annual legislative session, which ends on March 30th.

Republican Senate President Robert Stivers said Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear should feel pressure to call lawmakers in for a special session to draw new boundaries.

“Because that’s a constitutional mandate. That we have to give each person equal opportunity, equal weight for their voice and their vote,” Stivers said.

To complicate this even further, last year, the legislature moved up the date for candidates to file to run for office from the end of January to the beginning.

That means, if the legislature doesn’t pass a redistricting plan in 2021, it’ll have to do so when it returns in 2022. Legislators will either have to pass new maps in the first days of the session, or they’ll be filing to run while not even knowing what their districts look like.

If Beshear doesn’t call lawmakers in for a special session, he’ll be responsible for allowing lawmakers to run for reelection in lopsided districts, Stivers said.

“We know this to be true by some of the data, to have a state representative that in their district now has 60,000 people and another state representative district has 30,000 people. That is not an equal voice,” Stivers said.

“If he disregards that, that really says a lot about his belief in equal representation.”

Only the governor has power to call the legislature in for a special legislative session.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives for Kentucky Public Radio, a group of public radio stations including WKMS, WFPL in Louisville, WEKU in Richmond and WKYU in Bowling Green. A native of Lexington, Ryland most recently served as the Capitol Reporter for Kentucky Public Radio. He has covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin.
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