Legislature should shed self interest and redistrict fairly

The decennial frenzy of incumbent-protection known as redistricting is just around the corner, and already Republicans and Democrats are at loggerheads.

Kentucky's Democratic House favors handling redistricting in a special session before the end of the year, while the Republican Senate prefers waiting until the regular session starts Jan. 3.

Whichever, history tells us to be ready for a show of raw partisanship and political self-serving. Kentucky's legislature has had no qualms about slicing, dicing, pulling and prodding districts into unsightly bulges and skinny appendages, all to strengthen a party's or an incumbent's hold on a seat in the legislature or Congress.

There has to be a better way. And there is. At least 12 states insulate redistricting from the direct influence of their legislatures.

They do this by adopting processes for drawing political boundaries based on democratic principles, such as population equality, compactness and competitiveness of districts, respect for community boundaries and minority representation.

Politics will never be squeezed out of redistricting. Current example: Arizona. The Republican governor recently tried to oust the chairwoman of the state's supposedly independent redistricting commission, only to be reined by a court.

At least, though, in states that have committed to drawing competitive districts, there's a nonpartisan standard by which to judge the finished product.

We first urged consideration of a constitutional amendment to lessen the legislature's control in 1991 after a redistricting special session produced what we called "petty, vindictive gerrymandering" by the Democratic majority to disadvantage Republicans.

The redistricting after the 2000 Census was in a regular session. The results were no prettier as the Republicans who had taken the Senate played the same games the Democrats always had.

This time around, lawmakers could avoid embarrassing themselves by voluntarily following the nonpartisan principles of sound redistricting and by putting to voters a constitutional amendment to create an independent redistricting process.

On two matters that moved to the forefront last week, we have this to say:

■ Don't sever Jessamine County from the 6th Congressional District. We understand the district anchored by Lexington must lose territory because of population gains. Moving Republican-leaning Jessamine would help Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler in his expected rematch with Republican Andy Barr next year. We've endorsed Chandler in all his political races. But Fayette and Jessamine counties are economic and social partners, their futures are linked and splitting them would weaken their voice in Congress.

■ By being so early, the Jan. 31 deadline to file as a candidate in the May primary already greatly advantages incumbents. Would-be challengers won't even know district boundaries until the legislature redistricts. We're usually keen to avoid the cost of special sessions, but a redistricting special session might be a bargain, especially if it puts a politically charged issue behind lawmakers and allows them to settle down and get to work as soon as possible.