Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd is right. The political bloodbath unleashed by legislative redistricting is worse than the voter imbalance the process was supposed to correct.
Shepherd directed Kentucky’s secretary of state on Tuesday to have legislators run this year in districts that were drawn 10 years ago, not the new ones recently adopted by the General Assembly. House Democrats decided Wednesday to abide by that ruling but to request the Kentucky Supreme Court weigh the constitutionality of the redistricting plan. Senators were still mulling over their next step.
Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers pulled out the stops in trying to redraw district lines so as to put opponents at a disadvantage. Sen. Kathy Stein, a Lexington Democrat, saw her district shifted to northern Kentucky, her constituents scheduled for representation by a western Kentucky senator. She couldn’t even run again without moving. House Republicans, aggrieved over tortuous new boundaries drawn by Democrats to handicap GOP candidates, were the ones who sued to challenge the maps. Stein intervened in the lawsuit.
Shepherd called the political gymnastics that moved Stein’s district and gave Lexington voters a nonresident senator arbitrary and irrational. The Lexington legislator believes the Republican Senate was determined to punish her for her liberal views.
House Democrats were just as ruthless in twisting district lines to the detriment of their Republican adversaries. The judge granted House Republicans and Stein a temporary injunction to prevent an election based on crazy-quilt gerrymandering. He previously delayed the filing deadline for this year’s legislative elections from Jan. 31 to this Tuesday. His new order extended the deadline until 4 p.m. Friday.
This whole process has discouraged the legislature from acting on controversial topics until members know what opposition they might face in the next election. Gov. Steve Beshear, whistling past the graveyard, has said a proposed referendum on expanded gambling – which he staunchly supports – can pass quite late in the session if lawmakers have their hearts in the right place. Others aren’t so sure.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who seems to regard politics in redistricting as an inescapable fact of life, said he favored appealing Shepherd’s decision to the Kentucky Supreme Court but added that his side was prepared to run in districts drawn 10 years ago, as Shepherd ordered.
If lawmakers are truly interested in what’s best for the public, they should accept Shepherd’s decision and allow this year’s filing to proceed without further disruption. Voters may or may not be happy with the status quo but at least they should be somewhat familiar with their legislators and the territory those lawmakers were elected to represent. The people of Lexington – even those who vehemently oppose Sen. Stein’s politics – are better off accepting her than having to depend on a legislator who promises to do his best from 200 miles away. Democratic voters, putative beneficiaries of the House hatchet job on Republican legislators, might prefer to rely on someone from their own county, or at least not far removed.
In a perfect world, legislators would wind down the politics. Redistricting is designed to ensure all districts have comparable population with reasonably few splits in counties or precincts – something that could be accomplished by an entity beholden to neither party, if politicians were willing to turn loose of the strings. Voters should tell them the time has come to let it happen.