Kentucky Politics

Kentucky lawmakers will get data they need to draw new legislative and congressional maps later this summer after 2020 U.S. Census results were delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

In a normal year, legislators would have gotten census data before this year’s legislative session and could have already drawn new district boundaries.

But the delayed release means lawmakers will be scrambling to redistrict the state ahead of next year’s elections for all Kentucky’s congressional seats and most legislative seats.

Legislators discussed the timing issue during a meeting of the Interim Committee on State Government Tuesday.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, a Republican from Georgetown, called on Gov. Andy Beshear to call a special legislative session for lawmakers to vote on new maps.

“Once we get these data dumps from the U.S. Census bureau and we know the precincts and we know the county population, then each chamber can begin working on its map and we can also start working on a congressional map,” Thayer said.

Part of why lawmakers are scrambling to finalize new maps is so legislators will know what districts will look like during next year’s elections—sometimes the boundaries change during the process and incumbent legislators end up in entirely new districts.

And since the legislature recently moved up the deadline for candidates to file to run for office, lawmakers would have little opportunity to pass new maps between the beginning of next year’s legislative session, Jan. 3, and the filing deadline, Jan. 7.

That is, unless Beshear calls lawmakers in for a special legislative session.

Beshear’s spokesperson Sebastian Kitchen said Republican legislators haven’t talked to the governor about redistricting or a special session.

“Gov. Beshear is focused on ending COVID in the commonwealth and continuing Kentucky’s economic resurgence from the pandemic. The Governor and his team look forward to receiving more information from the Census Bureau later this year and determining the best option for redrawing congressional and legislative districts in the commonwealth,” Kitchen said in a statement.

Thayer said the legislature might temporarily delay the filing deadline next year.

“If we don’t have a special session, we’re going to have to come in and pass a new bill that temporarily, i.e. for one year, moves the filing deadline back to late January or perhaps into February,” Thayer said.

After securing control of both Kentucky’s legislative chambers in 2017, this will be the first time Republicans have been in charge of the redistricting process in state history.

Lawmakers will have to draw new districts to account for shifts in population, especially from more rural parts of the state in eastern and western Kentucky to the so-called “golden triangle” of Louisville, Lexington and northern Kentucky.

Thayer said the shifts in population would require Republicans to make “some really tough decisions” about consolidating districts in rural parts of the state.

Bowling Green and Owensboro also experienced increases in population.

Overall, Kentucky’s population increased by about 3.8% since the 2010 census—a slight increase that means the state didn’t add to or lose any of its six congressional seats.

The looming redistricting process raises worries about “gerrymandering,” the practice where lawmakers draw districts that benefit candidates from the majority party.

The Kentucky League of Women Voters has for years called on legislators to create an independent redistricting commission to advise the legislature on redistricting, but the effort hasn’t gained traction.

Kentucky is one of 30 states with some form of constitutional requirement that elections be “free and equal,” clauses that some have said could lead to a challenge of redistricting plans.

During the legislative meeting on Tuesday, Covington Democratic Rep. Buddy Wheatley cautioned map drawers to draw fair maps.

“I think this is going to be a free and equal race to the courts if there is too much movement in directions that don’t appear to be free and equal,” Wheatley said.

Kentucky will get an initial round of redistricting data on Aug 16. and the complete data set on Sept. 30.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.