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In An Expensive And Partisan Missouri Redistricting Fight, Voters Get The Final Say

Voters cast their ballots in Missouri's primary election on August 4, 2020 at Gambrinus Hall in St Louis, Missouri. In November, voters will decide on Amendment 3 which would change the state's approach to redistricting.
Voters cast their ballots in Missouri's primary election on August 4, 2020 at Gambrinus Hall in St Louis, Missouri. In November, voters will decide on Amendment 3 which would change the state's approach to redistricting.

Missourians will experience some déjà vu on Nov. 3.

That's because the GOP-controlled state legislature placed a measure on the general election ballot known as Amendment 3 that seeks to undo a state-level redistricting system, widely known as Clean Missouri, that passed with more than 60% of the vote in 2018. The fight is attracting national attention and national money ahead of the 2021 redistricting cycle.

The Clean Missouri system, which risks being undone, seeks to inject more competitiveness into a state legislature that's swung dramatically toward Republicans in the last decade. But foes of Clean Missouri contend the redistricting system that a majority of voters backed isn't about fairness but about helping Democrats. They also say that the system will lead to strange-looking districts that piece together communities that have little commonality in an attempt to manufacture competitive elections.

"Along with my colleagues, I've done my best to express that all of Missouri's communities matter," says state Rep. Dean Plocher, a Republican from St. Louis County who pushed the 2020 redistricting ballot item in the Missouri House.

Supporters of the 2018 plan say Clean Missouri will create a more responsive legislature because lawmakers will have to work harder to get re-elected and are raising sharp questions about whether the new proposals with Amendment 3 will lock in maps with profoundly uncompetitive districts.

"It's an amazing collection of bad ideas," says Sean Soendker Nicholson, a Democratic political consultant who is leading the campaign to defeat the legislature's plan.

Two-year battle

There are a few important things to note about the redistricting debate around state legislative districts in Missouri: Neither the legislature's plan nor Clean Missouri affects congressional redistricting, which the state-level House and Senate members directly vote on every 10 years. And unlike in states like Illinois, Missouri lawmakers have not had a direct role in drawing state legislative districts in decades.

Before Clean Missouri passed in 2018, either bipartisan commissions or a panel of appellate judges drew Missouri's state House and Senate maps. Since the commission split evenly between Republicans and Democrats frequently deadlocked, judges typically had the final say in the process.

That changed in November 2018 when voters approved Clean Missouri, which gives an appointed demographer much of the power over state legislative redistricting. The plan includes requirements for the demographer to create maps emphasizing competitiveness and partisan fairness. And while commissions can overrule the demographer, 7/10ths of the members need to agree on an alternative. Since Republicans and Democrats in Missouri have very different views of what constitutes advantageous redistricting, that scenario isn't particularly likely.

Supporters of the Clean Missouri system, like Democratic state Rep. Doug Beck, believe it will create a more responsive legislature that will think differently on things like health care and education policy.

"When you have competitive elections, I think you have better-elected people," Beck says. "I think you have better discussions. When you have a district that's 85% Democratic, what kind of elections are you having? And what kind of debate are you having on ideas?"

But backers of Amendment 3 say that Clean Missouri isn't about fairness or competitiveness, but about giving Democrats a leg up in the state legislative redistricting process. While some prominent Republicans like former U.S. Sen. John Danforth supported Clean Missouri, many of the state's political figures have strenuously opposed it and are seeking to repeal it before redistricting starts next year.

Lawmakers, many wearing masks, sit at their desks inside the House chamber Monday, April 27, 2020, in Jefferson City, Mo.
Jeff Roberson / AP
Lawmakers, many wearing masks, sit at their desks inside the House chamber Monday, April 27, 2020, in Jefferson City, Mo.

Their complaints about the 2018 system are many. For one thing, they contend the Clean Missouri ballot item was inherently deceptive because it paired redistricting changes and other items like lobbyist gift curtailments in one vote. Clean Missouri proponents pushed back by saying the redistricting overhaul was discussed extensively in local media outlets, detractors say the marketing focused heavily on what they derisively called "ballot candy."

"Because who wouldn't want to ban lobbyist gifts? I would love to ban lobbyists," says Republican state Rep. Justin Hill. "But you end up voting for one thing, it ends up being 40-something pages — and voila you get a process that's supposedly 'nonpartisan.' "

Others say the only way to allow a demographer to produce a more competitive legislative landscape is to draw unwieldy, narrow districts that piece together Democratic-leaning urban areas with more Republican terrain.

Lowell Pearson, who was part of a legal team that sued over Clean Missouri in 2018, predicts that will have negative consequences for lawmakers elected under the system.

"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," says Pearson, "and don't really understand how their constituents would have them vote on bills."

The new plan and its pushback

The plan the legislature put on the ballot for November would abolish the demographer process put forth in Clean Missouri and instead allow either commissions or appellate judges to draw House and Senate lines. The Missouri Supreme Court would be empowered to make changes if any final plan runs afoul of the system's criteria. Also, competitiveness and partisan fairness are deprioritized and substantially changed under Amendment 3, and approaches such as compactness are emphasized.

The House and Senate commissions would get larger under the proposed legislative plan but still require 7/10ths of its members to vote to approve a map. That could mean if Amendment 3 passes next month, judges could get the final say over what House and Senate maps look like in 2021 when redistricting is due to take place.

The judges who participated in the 2011 process wrote a memo earlier this year detailing how they didn't use political affiliation data when drawing districts.

Amendment 3 critics, though, say that judges have little expertise in redistricting — as evidenced by a 2011 Senate map that was struck down for being unconstitutional. And because the criteria under Amendment 3 is much different than Clean Missouri, the end result could be maps without a lot of competition.

Democratic lawmakers are also raising alarm bells about language in the proposed amendment that counts eligible voters, as opposed to total population for redistricting. Meaning, children and non-citizens could be left out of the numbers.

"To go from total population to only voters ... undoes 231 years of the way it has always been done in the United States of America," says state Rep. Jon Carpenter. "This is a radical and fundamental change to the democratic process in this country."

While it's not required that mapmakers use the total population standard, Amendment 3 foes say it shouldn't even be an option.

Voters aren't going to like the fine print, says Sean Soendker Nicholson, the Democratic political consultant who worked on Clean Missouri. "What they've put forward in the form of Amendment 3 is a rather audacious effort to not only undo all of the reforms that voters passed but to create a redistricting system that's unlike anything that Missouri has ever seen," Nicholson says. "It's unlike anything in the United States in a couple of key respects."

Amendment 3 foes are also honing in on the idea that lawmakers are trying to undo the will of the voters from two years ago.

"It's shameful. It's a disgrace," says Democratic state Rep. LaDonna Appelbaum. "We should be working on a bipartisan plan to help Missourians, not take their will away."

Some Black political figures opposed Clean Missouri in 2018 because they said the language wouldn't prevent a scenario where the percentage of Black residents in House and Senate districts get reduced — making it easier for white candidates to win. But many Black elected officials oppose the 2020 plan, including state Rep. Kevin Windham Jr.

"Even when they had the opportunity to engage with Black legislators, that obviously wasn't a priority," Windham says.

The expensive fight

The campaign against the legislature's redistricting plan has been successful at collecting six-figure checks from labor unions and Democratic-leaning nonprofit groups. That includes $500,000 from the National Education Association and $1 million for the North Fund, a Democratic-leaning political nonprofit that doesn't have to disclose its donors.

The "no" on Amendment 3 campaign also received $250,000 from the National Redistricting Action Fund. That group, which is headed up by former Attorney General Eric Holder, seeks to enhance Democratic redistricting efforts across the country.

Nicholson says the North Fund shares "our commitment to the values of fair redistricting that puts voters first."

"We've been working for literally years now to build a big coalition for a redistricting system that's fair to voters and that makes sure that voters have a functional choice in who represents them," Nicholson says. "We raised money because campaigns are expensive. The campaign has received support from a lot of organizations."

And there's a reason for those Clean Missouri proponents to be vigilant: A summary of the initiative that voters will see on their ballots details those marginal changes to limits on campaign donations and lobbyist gifts before mentioning the redistricting overhaul. Opponents of the new redistricting plan fear Missourians will think they're voting on an ethics overhaul, as opposed to mapmaking changes. That's likely one of the reasons why they're running ads showcasing how the changes to lobbyist gift limits would be ineffectual.

In addition to pointing out the deficiencies of the legislature's plan, Nicholson says his group is making the case that Clean Missouri is a better way of approaching the highly contentious redistricting process.

"This is a better way that makes sure that there is more competition, that protects against trying to do bad things in the future," Nicholson says.

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