Can the Kentucky Senate essentially kick out Democratic Sen. Kathy Stein of Lexington — and disenfranchise the 26,593 voters who chose her to represent them — by moving her district to another part of the state?
It can, and it has done something similar before.
"People are legitimately upset by this sort of thing, but it's part of the partisan redistricting process," said Donald Gross, a University of Kentucky political scientist.
Some states have established rules for independent, bipartisan redistricting that recognizes local concerns and shared community interests among neighbors. But in Kentucky, the Senate and House get free rein every 10 years to draw their district lines in ways that please their political majorities and torment their political minorities.
The law requires that populations of each district be substantially equal and that the state's racial makeup be reflected so some minority legislators can get elected. It does not guarantee voters the senator they put in office.
The Republican-led Senate this week unveiled a redistricting plan that bumps Stein's downtown Lexington 13th District about 40 miles away, to encompass eight rural counties in northeastern Kentucky. In her place, Sen. Dorsey Ridley, D-Henderson, will see his 4th District jump 200 miles east so he represents Lexington.
The maneuver eliminates Stein, an outspoken liberal and frequent critic of Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville. She must move to northeastern Kentucky — she says she won't — or leave office when her term expires at year's end. She can run for Ridley's new Lexington district in 2014, but he holds the seat for now.
Democrats are crying foul. However, they did something similar to a Republican in 1982 when Democrats were the majority party in the Senate. Leaders that year shifted GOP Sen. Jon Ackerson's suburban Louisville district south to the Tennessee state line despite his pleas that he no longer would represent the voters who elected him.
After his long-distance Senate term ended, Ackerson won a House seat back home in Louisville.
"The Democrats took care of themselves, and they are supposed to do that," Ackerson said at the time. "But they did that at the expense of these people, and they are not supposed to do that."
Republicans won the Senate in 2000. They soon evicted Sen. Daniel Mongiardo, D-Hazard, from his Appalachian Mountains district by moving it to the suburban counties between Cincinnati and Lexington. Unlike Stein, who must wait two years to run again in Lexington, Mongiardo was able to hang onto a Senate seat by running that same year for election in Hazard's new district.
Redistricting plans can be challenged on constitutional grounds in Franklin Circuit Court. But it's not likely that Stein could win, said Stephen Voss, a UK political scientist who has studied redistricting laws.
The Senate plan does not seem to violate laws on population equality or racial makeup, Voss said. The U.S. Supreme Court has reserved for itself the right to intervene in "gerrymandering" — the practice of carving up legislative districts for purely partisan motives — although it has proven reluctant to second-guess legislators in those cases, Voss said.
"The trick would be to get some of her constituents who voted for her as a senator, get them to sue based on the argument that they've been disenfranchised by this decision and denied the elected representation of their choice," Voss said. "But the legislature has been granted the authority to set its own rules for this process, so I'm not sure such a lawsuit would have much chance of success."
Stein said Thursday that she was giving "serious consideration" to suing and that she was hearing from outraged constituents who want to join in a challenge.
A lawyer by trade, Stein said she might have racial diversity grounds on which to sue if she can show the new Lexington Senate district would do a poorer job of representing the city's black and Hispanic residents than the current district. Or, she said, she might argue that making the people of Lexington go six years between Senate elections, rather than the traditional four, is a violation of their voting rights.
"I haven't had a chance to get into the case law, but I look forward to doing that this weekend," Stein said.