Al Cross: Gerrymanders warp legislature, damage our political system

The word “representative” is both a noun and an adjective. In the Kentucky General Assembly it has become mainly a noun, meaning a member of the House of Representatives.

That’s because the House is not as representative of Kentucky as it should be, given the results of this month’s elections and the district lines on which they were run.

The lines were drawn by Republicans who control the General Assembly and will have 80 of the 100 seats in the House and 31 of the 38 seats in the Senate when the legislature convenes in January.

Kentucky has become a red state, but not that red.

When Donald Trump won 65 percent of Kentucky’s presidential vote in 2016, his fellow Republicans won a corresponding 64 House seats, their first majority since 1920. In 2020, when a damaged Trump still got 63 percent, Republicans won 75 seats, benefiting from the accelerated decline of the state’s Democratic Party during four years of a Republican governor (who narrowly lost in 2019 because of his personality, not his party).

The 2020 census meant that district lines in every state had to be redrawn to equalize population, and in many states, Republicans took maximum advantage, breaking norms and breaking up communities.

In Tennessee, where Nashville had its own congressional district for more than a century, Republican legislators divided the capital three ways, forcing the retirement of longtime Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper, who will be succeeded by the eighth Republican in the state’s nine-member House delegation.

Some Kentucky Republicans had similar ideas for Louisville, where Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth announced his retirement in October 2021, before lines were drawn. But the rest of Kentucky’s delegation, all Republicans, apparently didn’t like the changes that would require in their own districts, so GOP legislators left Louisville’s district largely unchanged.

They messed with Kentucky’s second-largest city, Lexington, but to little effect. But they did political violence to third-largest city, Bowling Green; the state’s other major metropolitan area, Northern Kentucky; and the state capital of Frankfort.

The districts of Democratic state Reps. Patti Minter of Bowling Green and Buddy Wheatley of Covington were radically changed, eliminating from them some of the neighborhoods where they had run strongest in the past, and both were defeated. Wheatley’s original hometown of Ludlow was taken from his district.

Frankfort, a Democratic town, was abused two ways: by putting it in the First Congressional District, which runs to the Mississippi River, one of the more outlandish gerrymanders ever; and by putting it in a state Senate district that included enough Northern Kentucky suburbs that former Sen. Gex (“Jay”) Williams of Verona won.

“We were up against unprecedented gerrymandering,” Minter said in her concession speech, also blaming “big spending from an outside super PAC” that tied her to President Biden and “extreme voter suppression” by local election officials, who placed no polls in downtown Bowling Green or near Western Kentucky University, where she teaches.

But the biggest factor was the new district. Democrats, in their lawsuit against the House plan, used calculations that showed in her old district, Minter had a 77 percent chance of being elected, but in the new one, only 33 percent.

In ruling against the Democrats last week, Franklin Circuit Thomas Wingate wrote that they had “successfully established at trial that [the legislative and congressional plans] are partisan gerrymanders,” but “the Court must base its holding not on what is perceived as being most just or fair, but instead on what is provided for in the Kentucky Constitution,” which he said can’t be stretched enough to forbid it, unlike the constitutions of a few other states.

Unfortunately, those fundamental governing documents largely fail at dealing with a fundamental flaw in our system, the almost purely political nature of gerrymandering, which was once an art but is now a science. “Partisan gerrymandering is not a new concept,” Wingate wrote, “but rampant changes in technology have made it more prevalent and easier to detect.”

But courts have struggled to get from detection to deterrence, and in states like Kentucky, where constitutional changes cannot be proposed by voters, redistricting continues to warp legislatures, reducing public confidence in our system and increasing political polarization.

As both parties have made districts easier for incumbents to win, they have made primary elections determinative – and that pushes both parties farther apart on the political spectrum, reducing chances for the election of moderates and bipartisan cooperation. Instead of elections in which voters choosing their politicians, the game is rigged by politicians choosing their voters.

In Kentucky, which is becoming more urbanized, the state’s cities are losing their representative voices. Legislators need to ponder the state seal and motto, in which a frontiersman and a townsman shake hands and seem to agree that “United we stand, divided we fall.”

Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. He was the longest-serving political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal (1989-2004) and national president of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001-02. He joined the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2010.

NKyTribune is the anchor home for Al Cross’ column.