If you held a contest for the unsexiest pair of words, "redistricting reform" would have to be right up there.
Yet, as with other arcane mechanisms, such as your car's engine, neglect brings on system failure.
Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court has kept open a path to help save democracy from breakdown. Under a June 29 ruling, states are free to shift all or part of the responsibility for apportioning congressional and legislative districts from legislatures to independent commissions.
Now would be the ideal time for Kentucky to join this reform movement. The next Census is five years off — enough breathing room to concentrate on doing what's right, rather than how to rig the 2022 elections and beyond to advantage particular politicians or parties.
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Redistricting is a decennial low point for the General Assembly. The attempt in 2012 was such a brazenly self-serving fiasco that, even before it was thrown out by the courts, Gov. Steve Beshear called for creating a non-partisan, citizen-based group to guide the process in the future.
Lawmakers as disparate as Democrat Jim Wayne of Louisville and Republican Bill Farmer of Lexington, who has since left the legislature, also called for reforms. A bipartisan duo from Elizabethtown, Sen. Dennis Parrett, a Democrat, and Republican Rep. Tim Moore, have filed bills to create an advisory commission.
None of the ideas for reform have gained traction in a legislature unwilling to give up power. But every now and then, lawmakers do what's best for Kentucky even at their political peril.
With a push from the public, this could be one of those moments. The reward would be competitive elections in districts that represent genuine communities of interest.
Redistricting done right is the oil in democracy's engine, what keeps the "representative" in representative government, ensuring an equal voice for all citizens. "The voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around," explained Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the 5-4 decision. The ruling was a defeat for the Arizona legislature which was trying to abolish an independent redistricting commission created by voters in 2000.
Arizona is one of six states where independent commissions with no politician members are responsible for drawing political boundaries. The others are Alaska, California, Idaho, Montana and Washington, according to law professor Justin Levitt of Loyola University, author of A Citizen's Guide to Redistricting
Other states have less independent redistricting commissions. In seven, politicians can serve on the commissions, which sounds like not much of an improvement. Three states have advisory commissions. In five states, backup commissions take over if the legislature misses its deadline.
In Iowa, the legislature voluntarily follows a process that creates districts based on equal population with no regard for incumbent-protection or partisan advantage. Because Iowa is racially homogenous, drawing lines that safeguard minority representation is less of a concern.
Unlike in Arizona, Kentucky can't initiate a ballot question allowing voters to reform redistricting. Kentucky voters could have a say if the legislature put it to them in the form of a much-needed constitutional amendment. The section in need of change is 124 years old and was tailored for an agrarian state with less than half the current residents.
Equal populations are fundamental to representative districts. Ill-considered state Supreme Court rulings have made it impossible to create districts anywhere close to equal populations without slicing and dicing populous counties. This muffles and distorts the voices of the places where Kentuckians are flocking and that are creating jobs — a loss in representation that hurts the whole state.