Redistricting and Partisanship in Kentucky

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Central to the concept of democratic governance is the idea of pluralism and the balancing of power among opposing parties. Devoid of competition, factions within government are provided with a concerning amount of power, regardless of the political party in question. Some political philosophers may term this as “tyranny of the majority”, but regardless of the name, the gains of one faction often come at the expense of those in the opposition. This zero-sum game provides fertile ground for political machinations designed to further entrench the party in power.

Kentucky State Legislature

Recently, we have been provided an excellent case study of just exactly how this occurs, specifically in the context of Kentucky’s state legislature. Following the 2020 Census, many states have been working to redraw district boundaries within their states. Some have already been approved and adopted, while others have faced notable opposition. For example, the North Carolina Supreme Court just recently rejected the state’s redrawn congressional maps. Similarly, the maps submitted by the Republican-dominated Kentucky legislature are being challenged in court.

In Graham v. Adams, the plaintiffs—mostly Franklin County residents joined by the Kentucky Democratic Party—have alleged these new maps violate the state constitution and ask that they be annulled,  potentially forcing a redrawing of the districts.

While the plaintiffs put forth many arguments for the unconstitutionality of the state congressional districts, the clearest example of the lawsuit’s allegations is the extension of the 1st Congressional District further north to encompass Franklin County. This bizarre “fishhook” shape created by snaking the 1st District along the southern edge of Kentucky and abruptly shifting north until reaching Franklin County, is a textbook example of partisan gerrymandering.

There are two favorable outcomes the Kentucky Republicans seek with the implementation of these maps. First, by “cracking” the Democratic vote in Franklin County, the Republicans are able to strengthen Andy Barr’s position as the representative of the 6th District. In doing so, these potentially Democratic votes are dispersed among the solidly Republican 1st District represented by James Comer.  Second, according to the lawsuit, Comer had great interest in extending his district up to Franklin County to include a house purchased by Comer and his wife in 2012.

Republican Supermajority

Because of the Republican supermajority, the legislature was able to easily override Andy Beshear’s veto. This lop-sided balance of power within the state legislature of Kentucky has emboldened the members and incentivized them to take action that many would consider—at best—immoral, if not unconstitutional. By redrawing the districts in such a way, constituents are used as pawns for party gains and even arbitrary personal benefits or conveniences. Surely, the voters of Fulton County in the western-most reaches of the state have a discernable reason to not be represented by the same individual that represents the city of Frankfurt about 300 miles away.

Beyond the outcome of the pending lawsuit, different ideas of reform can be weighed. As we can see, this process is prone to partisan manipulation of voting districts; therefore, some have concluded that there is a better way to appropriately redraw districts. For example, a nonpartisan commission can be established to redraw districts. Without allegiance to any particular party, these commissions are able to draw districts based on reasonable assumptions and geographic proximity. Additionally, there are hybrid options in which the party in power retains some of their redistricting authority and enlists the help of a commission to ensure fairness. Either way, without some sort of control mechanism, citizens in a state with a supermajority in the legislature are virtually at the complete mercy of the majority party when it comes to redistricting.

By: Salem Thomas, EKU Graduate Assistant

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