Kentucky should reform redistricting

Kentucky legislators are not about to let three federal judges draw the boundaries on their political futures. So a lawsuit by Republican voters and elected officials in Northern Kentucky has snuffed any talk of putting off legislative redistricting until the 2014 regular session.

The sooner the better for redistricting, because, as the lawsuit says, potential challengers suffer an unfair hardship when incumbents wait until the last minute before the January filing deadline to redistrict. Would-be candidates can't make plans until they know in which district they'll reside after the boundaries are redrawn, sometimes in bizarre directions to protect incumbents.

Also, and this is a political rather than constitutional concern, redistricting can torpedo the rest of a session, as happened in 2012 when state courts declared the legislature's redistricting plan unconstitutional and the session crashed in flames.

The crux of the Northern Kentuckians' lawsuit — that the failed redistricting is depriving them and other Kentuckians of equal representation — is, as far as we can tell, indisputable. The House and Senate were elected last year from districts based on the 2000 census that had become grossly unequal in population.

Kentucky gained almost 300,000 people from 2000 to 2010, and there was migration within the state. The lawsuit provides evidence that population varied among districts by as much as 74 percent. As a result, some Kentuckians, especially those who live in growing places such as Lexington and Northern Kentucky, have a much weaker voice than others in the legislature. This violates the U.S. Constitution's "one person, one vote" guarantee.

Kentucky's legislature should reflect Kentucky's population. Nothing is more basic to democracy, yet the legislature has bungled this basic duty time and again, and will keep doing so without a couple of reforms, probably requiring a constitutional amendment:

■ A panel of independent citizens following non-partisan guidelines should create competitive districts of equal population. A dozen states have adopted reforms to end brazenly self-interested gerrymandering. Kentucky's legislature would gain credibility if voters picked their lawmakers rather than lawmakers picking their voters.

■ An outdated prohibition on splitting counties in Kentucky's constitution militates against creating districts of equal population. Kentucky had fewer than 2 million people when constitutional drafters placed such a high priority on county integrity.

With a population now of 4 million-plus, it's impossible not to split counties, so the Supreme Court as recently as last year has said the legislature must divide as few counties as possible when redistricting. So, to keep the many small counties whole, populous and even medium-sized counties, such as Laurel and Pulaski, are sliced and diced, denying them a distinctive voice in the legislature and depriving Kentucky of the kind of lawmakers these economic and cultural centers would elect.

Federal courts are unlikely to end this throwback to horse-and-buggy days, but the legislature could and should give voters the chance to approve such an amendment.