by Katherine Paige

Tornado season may be over, but the run up to the 2012 election kicked up a quite a storm in Kansas.

From an investigation into President Obama’s citizenship launched by the Secretary of State in response to a petition challenging the President’s place on the election ballot, to a federal appellate court ruling upholding the state’s system of tracking party affiliation, the months leading up to the general election were wrought with political and legal controversy. Incidentally, November was the first major election since the state’s enactment of a controversial voter identification law in 2011. Despite these challenges, it is the new state districting maps, released in June by a three-judge federal court panel, that will likely prove to be the biggest game changer for some this election.

Partisan Feud Leads to Federal Intervention

In accordance with federal law, Kansas draws new legislative, congressional, and State Board of Education districts every ten years following the Federal Census. The responsibility of developing the new districts initially falls to the legislature. This time, however, the legislature failed to reach consensus on a redistricting plan in time for the election.

The two legislative sessions since the 2010 census have been characterized by infighting between conservative and moderate factions of the Republican Party.  Members of the Senate, controlled by a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans, accused the conservative-controlled House of strategically drawing districts that favored conservatives in an effort to win control of the Senate. The court’s opinion describes the events that eventually led to its intervention: “Failing consensus, the process degenerated into blatant efforts to gerrymander various districts for ideological political advantage.”

The court rejected the maps proposed by the legislature and instead opted to draw new ones without accounting for existing incumbents. The resulting map included a number of vacant seats, as well as leaving a significant number of districts with more than one incumbent candidate. The court’s plan, which Kobach described as “probably the most disruptive redistricting in Kansas history”, was released less than two months before the August primary, leaving incumbents and challengers scrambling to make sense of the new political landscape.

Topeka and the Board of Education: Evolving Science Standards

Not all of the controversy over legislative redistricting was politics as usual. In addition to gerrymandering for “ideological political advantage”, House conservatives were accused of using racial discrimination in their design for the Board of Education districts. The court heard testimony from the Senate Minority Leader, Topeka Democrat Anthony Hensley who accused the House of passing a map “intentionally drawn to defeat the only African-American on the state board of education.”

Hensley, whose statements were neither questioned nor rebutted during the proceedings, was referring to the Board’s first and only African-American member, Carolyn Campbell, who has represented the Board’s 4th district since 2008. The map in question would have removed much of the urban Topeka Unified School District 501 from the 4th District, replacing Campbell’s constituents with a population of voters from five rural counties to the southeast. This would have been particularly disappointing for Campbell who served three terms on the Topeka Public Schools board of education from 1995 to 2007.

Setting aside Hensley’s claim of racial discrimination, a look at the history of the Board of Education raises some interesting issues.  Debate over the state science standards has perhaps made Kansas’ Board of Education the most notorious in the country.  In recent years the standards have changed each time the ideological composition of the board shifts. In 1999 the board voted 7-3 to remove evolution from the science standards, a decision reversed in 2001. When conservatives gained a majority in the 2004 election, the standards changed again, this time with a 6-4 vote to include intelligent design in the curriculum, a move supported by the Discovery Institute.  In 2006 the conservatives had lost their majority on the Board, and by early 2007 another 6-4 vote, this time the majority comprised of moderates, removed intelligent design from the science standards. The moderates have since maintained their majority on the board, and the science standards have remained unchanged.
Today, however, with five of the Board’s ten seats up for grabs in November, the future makeup of the board—and the future of Kansas’ science standards—remain unclear.  Additionally, the Board’s plans to review new science standards proposed by the National Research Council next year may attract increased interest this election cycle. Science standards are certainly the central campaign platform of Jack Wu, who is running against Campbell next month. According to Wu’s website, he would like to purge Kansas school curriculum of the “satanic lies” that are evolution.

The court’s new map keeps Topeka in one district, but places several new counties into the 4th District, something Campbell says is making her bid for a second term tougher as she seeks to introduce herself to new voters outside of her Topeka base.

Similar Issues in the News

Kansas isn’t the only state with this issue.  Redistricting in Texas has left all 15 of the state’s Board of Education seats up for grabs.  The race has been characterized by debates about science standards regarding evolution. Texas is also planning to review science standards in 2013.


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