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Ky. Democratic Party appeals redistricting ruling

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Alexey Stiop, 123rf Stock Photo
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The Kentucky Democratic Party has appealed a recent court ruling that upheld Republican-drawn political maps for the state House of Representatives and Congress.

Democrats argue the maps unfairly benefit Republican candidates. And while Franklin Circuit Court Judge Thomas Wingate ruled last month that the maps are “partisan gerrymanders,” he went on to say nothing in the state constitution bans lawmakers from taking politics into account when drawing political districts.

The Kentucky Democratic Party filed a motion this week to transfer the case to the Kentucky Supreme Court.

In a statement, Kentucky Democratic Party Chair Colmon Elridge said they would continue the fight to “stop the partisan gerrymandering of the GOP supermajority.”

“As evidenced by the election, the Republican majority worked behind closed doors to draw districts that cut up communities for partisan gain to beat incumbents they couldn’t beat on a fair playing field,” Elridge wrote. “If this isn't stopped now, Republicans will only grow bolder in their partisan gerrymandering in coming decades allowing Frankfort politicians to decide who they represent, picking easier paths to power and reelection, rather than allowing Kentuckians to decide who represents them.”

Republicans boosted their majorities in both chambers of the Legislature last month, increasing their ranks from 75 to 80 of the seats in the 100-member House of Representatives and 30 to 31 seats in the 38-member Senate.

The Kentucky Democratic Party, Frankfort Democratic Rep. Derrick Graham and four Franklin County residents filed the lawsuit earlier this year, arguing that the maps violate the state constitution by splitting counties into multiple districts “without legitimate purpose” and more times than is necessary to create districts of roughly equal size.

Democrats argue that gerrymandering was a violation of the Kentucky Constitution’s provision ensuring “free and equal” elections.

The lawsuit came after Republican lawmakers overrode Gov. Andy Beshear’s vetoes of the new redistricting maps.

In his 72-page opinion, Wingate wrote “there is no doubt” that the new boundaries amounted to “partisan gerrymanders.”

But he added that the Kentucky Constitution “does not explicitly forbid the consideration of partisan interests in apportioning representation.”

Wingate went on to say that “the Court must base its holding not on what is perceived as being most just or fair, but instead on what is provided for in the Kentucky Constitution.”

Northern Kentucky University constitutional law professor Kenneth Katkin said Wingate’s decision essentially paved the way for the state Supreme Court to interpret the rule.“ He found as a factual matter that these maps were in fact partisan gerrymanders, but as a legal matter that the constitution doesn’t have any rule against partisan gerrymanders,” Katkin said. “A lot of his legal analysis came down to the fact that the Kentucky Supreme Court has had no say on partisan gerrymandering, so it leaves it open to the court. I think he wrote the opinion in a way that maximizes the chance that it could be overturned by the Supreme Court.”

Kentucky Republicans were in charge of the redistricting process for the first time in state history this year.

The new maps helped Republicans secure major wins in Kentucky this year. The House map divides several urban areas in the state, connecting them with rural districts in surrounding areas.

The congressional map reshaped the 1st Congressional district from the western tip of the state up to Frankfort in central Kentucky. That move helped Republicans in the 6th Congressional District by removing Democrat-heavy Frankfort from its western flank.

Katkin said Democrats’ argument that partisan gerrymandering stands in the way of ensuring “free and fair elections” hasn’t been widely interpreted in redistricting cases in the past.

“The free and equal provisions were mainly about making sure that people were able to vote without voter intimidation, and after they vote the integrity of the ballots is maintained. It hasn’t been understood in past cases to relate to redistricting. But the circuit court ruling didn’t say that they couldn’t apply it, he just said that they haven’t,” he said.

Democrats have also argued that the plans dilute racial minorities’ political power in the state and make it harder for progressives to get elected. Katkin said it’s less likely the court would focus on the partisanship aspect of the lawsuit.

“The big argument could be that the Legislature is supposed to be accountable to the people,” Katkin said. “If the Legislature can draw maps that make it not accountable to people based on choosing their own electorate, they can guarantee their incumbency. They don’t have to stand in front of any meaningful electorate and you’ve sacrificed the equality of minority groups of voters.”

Divya Karthikeyan is the Capitol reporter for the Kentucky Public Radio Network, a collaborative of stations including WFPL-Louisville, WEKU-Richmond, WKYU-Bowling Green and WKMS-Murray.
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