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How Gerrymandered Is Kentucky? One Group Is Starting The Discussion

Josh James
Maps of Kentucky Senate and House districts await attendees at the League of Women Voters of Kentucky's forum on redistricting and gerrymandering on Oct. 3, 2017.

As a high-stakes Wisconsin gerrymandering case goes before the U.S. Supreme Court this week, one Kentucky group is taking a closer look at the state’s electoral map. Their preliminary findings suggest the commonwealth isn’t among the worst offenders, but some district shapes do raise eyebrows.

Descriptions of oddly-drawn gerrymandered districts often sound like Rorschach test answers: "The Praying Mantis," a.k.a. Maryland's 3rd, "The Upside-Down Elephant" in Texas, and Pennsylvania's notorious 7th District, "Goofy Kicking Donald."

"And it really does look like Donald Duck kicking Goofy," notes Susan Perkins Weston with the League of Women Voters of Kentucky.

Weston's work on a draft report for the League suggests Kentucky hasn’t been quite so carved up, thanks to a state rule preventing the legislature from splitting counties unless it’s necessary to achieve balance. Still, that’s left some more populated counties sharing constituents with areas two counties away.

Take Fayette County, which boasts enough people to fill four districts. Under the current map, it houses two state Senate districts "and then three that tail way off to Washington County with Springfield and way off to Montgomery County."

"I know people here who think, 'How am I going to know who represents me if they do it that way?'" Weston adds. 

As for other possible trouble spots, she also points to three peninsulas drawn into Oldham County, some squid-like shapes "eating" Warren County, and frustration among voters in Laurel and Pulaski counties.

"They're quite large counties, but they didn't get a single district that just represents them," she says.

Kentucky’s current maps were drawn up in 2013 after the courts sent state lawmakers back to the drawing board. Although redistricting won’t come up again until after the 2020 U.S. Census, Weston says the League is looking for ways to get more citizens educated and involved.

Reforming the Process

Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court began hearing oral arguments in Gill vs. Whitford, a case that could potentially alter the legislative landscape if justices decide to craft metrics for determining unlawful gerrymandering – or the drawing of districts to benefit one political party. But until the court hands down a ruling, Weston and her nonpartisan group are seeking ways to temper an increasingly bitter political polarization that threatens to enshrine gerrymandering as the status quo.

One would hand off redistricting to independent commissions, a system in place in a handful of states including California. A former governor of the Golden State, Arnold Schwarzenegger, made the case at a Supreme Court rally Tuesday.

"You know it's a system where the politicians are picking the voters, rather than the voters picking the politicians. So I say it's time to say hasta la vista to gerrymandering," he said.

Weston calls district-drawing commissions a "big stretch for Kentucky."

"That would have to get on the ballot, and in Kentucky that means the legislature would have to put in on the ballot, so that's a big lift," she says. "I think it's worth pushing for, but it's hard."

Instead, Weston says an advisory commission, bringing together a diverse group to draft a plan before the legislature casts the final vote, might serve as a more realistic near-term goal. Short of that, she says increased transparency and efforts to slow down the pace of redistricting could also improve the process.

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