Missouri voters will almost certainly have another say this year on how state Senate and House districts are drawn.
They’ll choose between keeping a system they voted for in 2018, in which a demographer holds much of the power to draw maps, and a modified version of the old system.
It’s a debate that’s elicited national attention from redistricting enthusiasts and political parties, especially since the complex and wonky subject of mapmaking has an immense impact on how citizens are represented in government.
Backers of Clean Missouri have panned the GOP-controlled General Assembly for making a ballot item on redistricting a priority. Not only do they see the move as disrespectful to voters who backed Clean Missouri in 2018, but they contend that what they’re proposing will create House and Senate maps that are chronically uncompetitive.
“I think more competitive districts is better for democracy,” said Sen. Scott Sifton, an Affton Democrat who represents one of the more competitive Senate districts in the state. “I think you have too many folks on both sides of the aisle who are looking over their shoulders at potential primaries and worried about whether they can run far enough to the left or the right — rather than people who are working to try to move us forward together in the middle.”
But Clean Missouri detractors contend that the system voters approved in 2018 wasn’t about competitiveness or fairness, but rather giving Democrats a leg up in a state that’s trending toward the GOP. They’ve also questioned what districts will look like under the Clean Missouri system that emphasizes competitiveness and partisan fairness — especially since Democrats are largely condensed in the state’s two largest cities.
“I’ve had people email me and say, ‘Oh, you need to keep this new system that was just voted in because everyone voted for it,’” said Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina. “But I’ll ask them: ‘What is it about the old system that you thought was unfair?’ And their response is that they didn’t know what the old system was.”
Missourians approved Clean Missouri, known as Amendment 1, in 2018 with roughly 62 percent of the vote. In addition to making changes to state legislative redistricting, it included a number of popular ethics proposals like curtailing lobbyist gifts and expanding the Sunshine open records law. It also made small changes to campaign finance law, including slightly lowering donation limits for House and Senate candidates.
The new state legislative redistricting system gives most of the power to draw state legislative districts to a demographer. And it places an emphasis on competitiveness and partisan fairness. It does not affect congressional redistricting, in which the General Assembly approves a map and the governor signs or vetoes it.
Almost immediately after Clean Missouri passed, Republicans who control the General Assembly talked openly about placing a new measure on the 2020 ballot that would do away with much of the measure’s redistricting changes. While most of the opposition to Clean Missouri came from Republicans, some African American Democrats have expressed concern that Clean Missouri’s language won’t prevent the demographer from lowering the percentage of black voters in a district.
After an unsuccessful effort to change Clean Missouri in 2019, Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, have made passage of a ballot item a 2020 priority.
“I’ve got 24 people who are willing to stay up all night,” said Rowden, referring to his 24-member GOP caucus. “I’ve got 24 people who are willing to answer quorum calls. And so that really opens us up to really do what we need to do.”
Sen. Dan Hegeman is sponsoring the vehicle that's likely to make it onto the ballot. If voters approve the Cosby Republican’s proposal, bipartisan commissions or appellate judges would draw House and Senate maps instead of the demographer. It also moves compactness and contiguousness up on the list of redistricting priorities above of the aforementioned competitiveness and partisan fairness formula.
“It really gives the voters the opportunity to look at this issue,” Hegeman said. “Instead of empowering a demographer that has a great deal of power and has a number of criteria that I think will dramatically impact my communities.”
Additionally, Hegeman’s measure bans lobbyist-paid gifts altogether. Clean Missouri limited meals, entertainment and travel to $5 an occurrence. It also lowers the donation limits for Senate candidates from $2,500 to $2,000 per contributions. Many lawmakers have gotten around the lobbyist gift restrictions by using campaign donations. And Missouri’s contribution limits have been rendered functionally useless since donations to political action committees are uncapped.
Sean Soenkder Nicholson, campaign director for the Clean Missouri coalition, disputes the idea that Hegeman’s proposal is “going back” to the old system of state legislative redistricting, noting that the plan changes, among other things, how bipartisan commissions are set up and how maps can be challenged in court. He said Hegeman’s plan excises language aimed at encouraging racial groups to join together in creating “coalition districts.”
He called Hegeman’s plan “an amazing collection of bad ideas that are all designed to set up a gerrymander in 2021.”
“Missourians have already made it very clear that they want a fair process, they will do that again,” Nicholson said. “If the Legislature sends a gerrymandering plan to the ballot, the coalition that worked to get Amendment 1 passed in the first place will continue to work to show everyone what it is that the politicians in Jefferson City think map-drawing ought to look like. And we will win again.”
Democrats in the General Assembly have been nearly universally opposed to GOP efforts to place redistricting back before voters. That includes Clean Missouri skeptics like Sen. Karla May, a St. Louis Democrat who voted against Hegeman’s amendment in committee.
“I believe the people have spoken, and I’m not interested in going against what the people decided,” May said last year.
But since Democrats are so outnumbered in the Missouri House and Senate, it’s highly unlikely they’ll be able to stop any proposed ballot item from passing through both chambers. That’s why people on both sides of the Clean Missouri debate expect voters to decide how state legislative maps are drawn in 2021.
One of the big structural impediments for Missouri Democrats is that the party’s voters are clustered primarily in the St. Louis and Kansas City area. Making compactness a priority in redistricting basically places the party at a disadvantage — especially since the Missouri Democratic Party’s collapse in rural and exurban parts of the state.
The Clean Missouri redistricting system still has a compactness and contiguousness requirement. It states that other priorities, including the competitiveness and partisan fairness formula, will take precedence when a “conflict arises between compactness and these standards.” Compactness is defined under Clean Missouri as districts that “are square, rectangular, or hexagonal in shape to the extent permitted by natural or political boundaries.”
Nicholson said it’s too early to say what House and Senate districts will look like under the Clean Missouri system. For one thing, the census will need to be conducted and the 2020 elections will need to occur to complete a formula within Clean Missouri. He added that the end result should be more competitive districts.
“And then, of course, that assumes that you’ve got candidates who are out there working and talking to voters and knocking doors,” Nicholson said. “Candidates still have to do their part, and that’s great. What we want is a world where how the candidates are and how hard they’re working and how they’re connecting with voters — that actually is the thing that matters.”
St. Louis Public Radio interviewed a number of Republicans and Democrats who served on House or Senate redistricting commissions. Most predicted that the way to create more competitive districts would involve linking largely Democratic urban areas with more suburban terrain.
There’s some evidence that such a hypothesis holds water: One of the most competitive House districts in the state, the 70th District, connects Democratic-leaning cities like Bridgeton and Maryland Heights with traditional GOP strongholds like Chesterfield and St. Charles.
Lowell Pearson, who served on the 2012 commission that created the Senate maps and was part of a legal team that sued over Clean Missouri in 2018, predicts that the end result of Clean Missouri is the creation of narrower districts that will be difficult to represent.
“And I worry that if we have these ribbon districts, we’re going to have people in the Missouri House particularly but the Senate as well who don’t have knowledge of most of their constituents’ lives, who don’t know how to help them through the executive branch, and don’t really understand how their constituents would have them vote on bills,” Pearson said.
Trent Skaggs, who was on the 2012 Senate commission with Pearson and also served in the Missouri House, also believes more competitive districts will involve linking urban and suburban territory.
But he said the end result will be more responsive legislators who value “good follow-up and good representation.”
And even though Skaggs was part of a commission that approved a map, he said he saw a lot of flaws with how that process worked.
“There was just this inherent lack of trust between committee members — even amongst your own party,” Skagg said. ”From that standpoint, I sort of view [Clean Missouri] as almost like the Missouri court plan that was put in place in the 1940s. It’s not perfect, but it builds back some of that trust.”
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