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Clean Missouri: Voters may see redistricting issue on November ballot

On Nov. 6, 2018, Missouri voters approved Constitutional Amendment 1 by a 62% to 38% margin [1,459,576 voters voted ‘yes’.]

Proponents of the amendment had dubbed it “Clean Missouri.” Though that moniker did not refer to environmental cleanliness but rather the political environment in Jefferson City.

The amendment reduced state legislators’ allowable campaign contribution amounts, created a two-year waiting period before legislators can become lobbyists, and created a new redistricting process for state House and Senate seats.

In 2019, Republicans in Jefferson City began proposing changes to Clean Missouri. While they acknowledged that the campaign contribution limits and lobbying restrictions portion of the amendment were easily understandable and very popular, some said the redistricting plan was too broad and more difficult for voters to understand. Consequently, on Dec. 1, 2019, Senate Joint Resolution 38 [SJR 38] was filed by Sen. Dan Hegeman [R-District 12]. It was first read in the Senate on Jan. 8, 2020, and statewide debate began.

To help educate the local public and address issues surrounding the proposed changes to Clean Missouri, St. Charles Community College [SCC] political science faculty Gabe Harper and Paul Roesler organized a panel discussion from 10-11:15 a.m. on Feb. 11.

The panel included Nancy Miller, co-president of the League of Women Voters, Metro St. Louis; Ashton Kuehnel, community outreach coordinator, Sierra Club of Missouri; and retired State Rep. Scott Dieckhaus. Dieckhaus currently is a partner in the Palm Strategic Group LLC firm. Palm specializes in getting candidates elected and bills passed, or defeating them.

The moderator for the discussion was Roesler, who serves as chair of the SCC Political Science Department. The audience totaled about three dozen interested people, a fair turnout for a cold weekday morning in February.

Eliminating gerrymandering

Roesler opened the discussion with a broad overview of Clean Missouri, saying that beyond campaign contribution limits and lobbyist restrictions, the intent of Clean Missouri was to take district mapping out of the hands of politicians, move the responsibility to an independent expert, ensure “fairer” voting districts, and reduce or eliminate political gerrymandering.

Roesler explained that the term “gerrymandering” is named after Elbridge Gerry. As the governor of Massachusetts in 1812, Gerry signed a bill creating a purely partisan district in Boston that was shaped similarly to a salamander. It created an unfair advantage by manipulating district boundaries. Roesler defined gerrymandering as “where politicians choose their voters, instead of the voters choosing the politicians.” Now a verb, gerrymandering is usually thought of as a corruption of the democratic process. However, both political parties have been doing it since 1812.

Missouri House district map as it stands today. [Source: Secretary of State]

State House and Senate districts are redrawn after each census by bipartisan redistricting commissions; most recently in 2011 when a deadlock at the commission level resulted in a significant redrawing of Senate and House maps that, after a legal battle, left voters with House districts that had been stripped of their elected incumbents. Before Clean Missouri, five Republicans and five Democrats were appointed to the commission by the governor, from nominees submitted by the Democratic and Republican parties. Seventy percent of the bipartisan commission had to agree to the redrawn maps. If they could not agree, the map was sent to a panel of appellate judges, appointed by the Missouri Supreme Court.

Though the commission aspect remains, Clean Missouri also created a state demographer position. That individual, who is deemed nonpartisan, proposes maps to the commissioners that reflect each party’s share of the statewide vote in previous elections for president, governor and U.S. senator. The commission can make changes to the demographer’s draft map, but the changes must be approved by 70% of the commissioners and also must adhere to criteria for “fair” redistricting.

To be eligible for the demographer position, a person cannot have served in a partisan elected position in the last four years. They also are prohibited from holding office in the General Assembly for four years after their last proposed redistricting map.

The list of qualified nonpartisan state demographer applicants are sent by the state auditor to Senate majority and minority leaders. The leaders can agree on a nominee. If they cannot agree, they each can remove up to a third of the names on the list. Then, the state auditor randomly draws one of the remaining names “out of a hat,” like a lottery.

Senate district maps as they stand today. [Source: Secretary of State]

After the Census data are available following the 2020 Census [expected in 2021], the demographer will draw the proposed new district map using approved criteria including compactness, continuity, partisan fairness and competitiveness – guidelines contained in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The demographer then will send the proposed redistricting map to the commission, where the commissioners can make changes, make public the proposed map, and create a final version to be used for the next statewide election.

Debating redistricting

The panel took turns talking about how their views differed about Clean Missouri, the proposed changes, and especially redistricting. Three points garnered the most attention and interest.

1. Is the new demographer position really nonpartisan?

Dieckhaus expressed the view that because the demographer qualifications are defined by the state auditor, a partisan position, and the auditor ultimately chooses the names to be sent to Senate leaders, then the demographer could be viewed as favorable to the state auditor’s political party. He said he believes the prior process with a bipartisan commission requiring 70% agreement on the new maps actually results in a more bipartisan result.

Miller and Kuehnel disagreed, saying the new process will work better than the old, because the demographer starts from a more neutral position and works with the Census facts.

2. How realistic is it to expect “competitiveness and partisan fairness” criteria to result in new districts that are “balanced, compact and contiguous,” rather than spaghetti-shaped?

Dieckhaus said that given where the Missouri political parties already have concentrations of voter strength in various cities, towns and counties, it will be nearly impossible to redraw districts to achieve a goal of a fairly even split of voters by party, while also keeping a district compact, contiguous [non-spaghetti] and being competitive.

Miller and Kuehnel disagreed, and said studies and experiments have shown it is possible. They also said the goal is not to be perfectly balanced, but to create a genuine chance that someone from the other party could be elected. They also said the demographer position enables a more transparent process, instead of relying on a commission meeting behind closed doors. Kuehnel explained that the demographer’s proposed redistricting maps are to be available for the public to see, not just the commission.

3. Did the voters understand what they were voting for?

Dieckhaus said Clean Missouri contained several items bundled under one amendment and that voters had to vote for “all or nothing.” If they wanted campaign contribution limits and lobbyist waiting periods, they also had to approve redistricting.

He also claimed that Clean Missouri was funded by Texas billionaires. He said state legislators believe that voters really want to keep the legislative districts they have now and if they had understood how the process was going to change, voters would not have approved Amendment 1 as it was written.

Dieckhaus further said he believes it is wise and in the interests of Missouri citizens to allow them to vote on the redistricting process by itself.

Kuehnel and Miller said they and their organizations believe that voters actually did understand what they were voting for, including redistricting. They said the proposed changes currently being debated at the state level for a re-vote contain much more than just redistricting. Both Miller and Kuehnel expressed grave reservations about possible changes to who will be counted from the Census and used as the base population from which to draw the new district maps. They said the proposed language would eliminate using the total population found in the Census, and instead could leave out children under 18, people who are not registered to vote or have not voted recently, and immigrants with green cards. That, they said, would result in under-representation of big segments of the state population.

Miller pointed out that St. Charles County has the largest population of children age 0-17 in the entire state. If children under age 18 are not counted in redistricting, as has been proposed, St. Charles County has the most to lose of all Missouri counties. She also said that ignoring non-voters also would not be fair, and the process should simply count everyone as it is set up now.

The panel discussed how ethnic groups should be represented in redistricting and seemed to agree it would be good to keep people with common interests in the same district An example given by Miller focused on the 70,000 Bosnians now living in south St. Louis. Splitting up their interests and votes would not be fair to them, she said.

In the closing minutes, the audience asked the panel for clarifications about where the view was coming from that the voters did not understand what they voted for.

Dieckhaus said several polls were used, all GOP-related, including one that was funded by a political action committee. Two members of the audience spoke up and said they were offended that anyone thought they were so ignorant that they voted for something they did not understand.

Fate of SJR 38

Concurrent with the panel discussion on Feb. 11, the Missouri Senate passed a refined SJR 38 the same day, with proposed changes to Clean Missouri. The Missouri House then conducted a first reading on Feb. 11 and a second reading on Feb. 12. SJR 38 has been dubbed “Dirty Missouri” by Democrats and the proponents of the original Clean Missouri.

If passed by the House, the proposals of SJR 38 would be placed before Missouri voters on Nov. 3, 2020, or during a special election to be called by the governor for that purpose.

At least two key questions now must be answered, perhaps as part of the Nov. 3 election: Were Missouri voters actually ignorant about what they approved on Nov. 6, 2018? And will they understand all of the proposed changes outlined in SJR 38?

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