Kansas could end unusual census adjustment for redistricting

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Posted at 11:40 AM, Oct 28, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-28 12:40:49-04

TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas could soon end an unusual policy of using its own numbers in addition to federal census data to redraw the boundaries of state legislative districts, a longstanding practice that has cost university communities political clout.

Voters statewide will decide Nov. 5 whether to approve a proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution to eliminate a requirement for the state to adjust federal census figures when the Legislature redistricts itself. The adjustment counts college students and military personnel not where they're living but in a "permanent" home elsewhere — outside Kansas for thousands of them.

Kansas is among only a few states that adjust federal census figures for redistricting, and before it started doing it in the 1990s, it did its own population counts for more than a century. Critics see the adjustment as archaic and expensive, and the proposed amendment had overwhelming bipartisan support as it slipped quietly through the Republican-controlled Legislature earlier this year.

The biggest winners from the change likely would be Lawrence and Manhattan, home to the main campuses of the University of Kansas and Kansas State University. When the state last adjusted census figures in 2011, their counties lost 13% of their combined populations, more than 23,000 people, enough for a Kansas House seat between them.

"It is a matter of fairness," said Lawrence Mayor Lisa Larsen. "The students live here. They contribute to our economy. They're contributing to our community in a great way."

Secretary of State Scott Schwab urged legislators to put the amendment on the ballot. He is doing media interviews and has a website promoting it and says the next adjustment would cost the state $835,000. There is no organized opposition to the amendment ahead of an election otherwise set for filling city offices and local school board seats.

Kansas is the last state to adjust census figures for college students or military personnel after Alaska in the late 1990s dropped a policy of adjusting its military population downward. But Maryland and New York count prison inmates in their hometowns rather than where they're incarcerated to avoid what critics call "prison gerrymandering."

Kansas lawmakers expect to revise legislative districts again in 2022. Adjusting the college and military populations is a remnant of the state's longtime practice, ended in the 1990s, of doing its own census for redistricting purposes.

Schwab said the next adjustment would be expensive because his office would have to hire a contractor to track down people to ask them where they want to be counted, and that's more difficult now than in the past because cellphones have increasingly replaced landline telephones.

Supporters of the adjustment in the past have argued that people living temporarily in a college town or on a military base should be allowed to choose where they're counted. They've also suggested that the policy helps rural communities.

But no rural county saw its population adjusted upward by 3% in 2011, and a few even lost a little population. Overall, when all the shifts were taken into account, the state's total population declined by about 13,700 residents, or less than 0.5%.

"It's a no-brainer to vote for that amendment," said Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican.