Town halls gave great insight into Kansas redistricting. Legislators must do second round with census data.

Tom Sawyer
Special to Gannett Kansas

A bipartisan committee toured Kansas, stopping in 14 cities to hear from Kansans about their thoughts, needs and wants going into the once-a-decade redistricting process. I visited all 14 towns on the tour: Manhattan, Salina, Hays, Colby, Garden City, Dodge City, Hutchinson, Wichita, Chanute, Pittsburg, Leavenworth, Kansas City, Overland Park and Lawrence.

In all corners of the state, I saw amazing turnout from engaged and passionate citizens who are invested in the future of their communities. 

I have previously participated in the redistricting process, and every tour proves to be beneficial in ways expected and unexpected. Legislators on the tour get to eat in local restaurants, chat with residents about their concerns, and build relationships in communities we wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to visit.

Not only does this help us in redistricting, but it also helps us craft better policies during the legislative session. Kansas has a strong track record of fair lines without gerrymandering. Bipartisan collaboration and a balanced approach ensure nearly every voice is recognized and included in this critical democratic function. 

Throughout this most recent trip, a distinct pattern emerged. Residents in nearly every city expressed three main points that can be boiled down to a single concern: They do not trust their elected officials to be transparent, ethical or fair. One after the other, they spoke on the rushed roll-out of the “listening tour” and the perception that this was an intentional ploy to avoid receiving authentic constituent feedback.

In every city, people expressed frustrated confusion that legislators were touring the state without having seen the census data that forms every redistricting boundary. Without assigning intent, I agree that my colleagues could have planned this tour in a more efficient and productive way. 

Despite the barriers, I learned a lot that will be used in drawing new districts. First and foremost, Democrats and Republicans in nearly every town agreed that Johnson County and Wyandotte County should not only stay together, but also stay out of the first congressional district. If some of the area must be separated out, people asked it be done in a way that keeps together their shared community interests and deep ties. Also, there was significant worry about the disenfranchisement of minority voters if their communities are broken apart. 

Considering all of this, the redistricting committee needs to host a second round of in-person town halls. But this time we need adequate publicity, and we need to host them at convenient times — not during work hours. Perhaps most importantly, it is critical these town halls not be just virtual. I witnessed firsthand the technical difficulties resulting from a lack of rural broadband access — something we must address as soon as possible in the Legislature — that would undoubtedly be unfair to the rural Kansans who have every right to be heard. 

It is also crucial that we plan for differences in population of the towns we visit. Each visit was one hour and fifteen minutes. This meant in towns of 10,000 or less, some residents had up to seven minutes to speak by virtue of being a smaller community. At the Overland Park town hall, which encompassed a region of over 660,000 people, residents were given a strict two minutes to speak. Over 300 people showed up and more than 50 signed up to speak. They were not given appropriate or fair time allotments. This is not OK and must not happen in the future.

I hope to see strong turnout at the next round of town halls. It might be helpful to know that anyone can submit a map for consideration — legislators are no different than constituents in this regard. There are numerous online resources to make this simple, such as Districtr and DistrictBuilder (www.districtbuilder.org).

Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, is the Kansas House minority leader.