Missourians decided in 2018 to try something different when it came to drawing state House and Senate district maps.
They chose to empower a demographer to come up with plans that emphasized partisan fairness and competitiveness, which proponents say will encourage more competition in General Assembly contests.
As it turns out, the 2018 vote was not the final word on the issue. That’s because the GOP-controlled Legislature placed Amendment 3 on the Nov. 3 ballot. At the heart of the constitutional amendment are changes to state legislative redistricting that backers say will prevent the creation of unwieldy and narrow districts that are difficult to represent.
“Along with my colleagues, I’ve done my best to express that all of Missouri’s communities matter,” said state Rep. Dean Plocher, a Republican from St. Louis County who handled the redistricting ballot item in the Missouri House.
But backers of the 2018 plan, widely known as Clean Missouri, aren’t going to let their win two years ago go without a fight. They’ve launched a well-funded and well-organized campaign to defeat Amendment 3, contending that the measure will produce profoundly uncompetitive campaigns.
“It’s an amazing collection of bad ideas,” said Sean Soendker Nicholson, a Democratic political consultant who is leading the campaign to defeat the plan.
Amendment 3 foes also are arguing that the voters already spoke on the issue and that skeptics of Clean Missouri should respect that decision.
The fine print
Amendment 3 would hand over responsibility for drawing House and Senate maps to either commissions split evenly between Republicans and Democrats or a panel of appellate judges. It would also change the criteria either of those entities use when drawing maps. For instance, compactness is moved up in priority — while the heavily modified partisan fairness and competitiveness standards will be moved down. The measure also makes small changes to the state's lobbyist gift and legislative campaign donation limits.
Critics of Clean Missouri contend that because Democrats are largely concentrated in St. Louis and Kansas City, the only way to actually spur more competitive elections is to create narrow, unwieldy districts that connect urban areas with more Republican suburbs. And that’s not necessarily an optimal outcome for people like Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau.
“We think it’s important that redistricting be done in a way that doesn’t harm our members,” Hurst said. “And the initiative that passed in 2018 is unfair to people who live in the smaller, more rural parts of the state. That’s a strong feeling among our membership, almost unanimously.”
Much of the paid campaign against Amendment 3 is accusing its crafters of trying to fool Missourians into thinking they’re voting for minor ethics changes when the meat of the proposition involves state legislative redistricting. Hurst said people making that argument have a lot of “chutzpah,” since Clean Missouri included a host of popular ethics items like curtailing lobbyist gifts and making legislative emails open records.
“Do I think that ethical changes in Amendment 3 are a bit of trolling going on? Oh absolutely,” Hurst said. “But we didn’t start this game.”
Other Amendment 3 supporters like state Rep. Phil Christofanelli of St. Charles County have disputed the idea that state House and Senate maps are purposefully gerrymandered to help a political party. He pointed to how the appellate judge panels have been responsible for the majority of House and Senate maps enacted over the past 30 years.
“All of the horror stories you hear from the advocates of Clean Missouri about how Missouri’s maps were gerrymandered I think are undermined by the fair and nonpartisan approach that the members of the judiciary took in drawing Missouri’s maps,” Christofanelli said earlier this year.
Nicholson, the leader of the anti-Amendment 3 campaign, said backers of the 2020 measure are exaggerating about what districts will look like under Clean Missouri. He’s noted that it’s impossible to guess, because some of the formulas used in Clean Missouri include the fall 2020 elections.
He also said there’s a lot to dislike about Amendment 3’s details.
“And so 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 said. “And they know that voters aren’t going to like what’s in the fine print.”
Some of what Nicholson is talking about is moving down heavily modified competitiveness and partisan fairness standards and moving up compactness. Other Amendment 3 detractors don't want judges to have any responsibility over redistricting, especially since they lack expertise in the highly technical and politicized subject.
Others, like Democratic state Rep. Jon Carpenter, are raising alarms about language that would only count eligible voters, as opposed to the state’s total population. While Nicholson said that Amendment 3 does not require the eligible voter standard, opponents of the measure, like Carpenter, have said having that as an option could mean that children don’t get counted during redistricting.
“There is nothing conservative about radically altering and fundamentally changing the basic underpinings of our democratic structure in this country,” said Carpenter, D-Clay County.
But perhaps the most common argument that Amendment 3 opponents are using doesn’t have anything to do with redistricting standards or how people are counted under the plan. Rather, they argue that voters already made up their minds on the issue in 2018, and lawmakers who are pushing Amendment 3 to the forefront should respect their decision.
“It’s shameful. It’s a disgrace,” said Democratic state Rep. LaDonna Appelbaum, D-St. Louis County, during legislative debate over the proposal in May. “We should be working on a bipartisan plan to help Missourians, not take their will away.”
With only several weeks to go before Election Day, Amendment 3 opponents are vastly outspending proponents. Nicholson’s group has taken in nearly $6 million in donations of more than $5,000 in the past year, including six-figure checks from labor unions such as the Missouri National Education Association and politically active nonprofits like the North Fund.
The “no” campaign has also received help from a group headed by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that seeks to improve Democratic redistricting prospects. But Nicholson points out that prominent Republicans have come out against Amendment 3, such as former U.S. Sen. John Danforth.
“For sure there is a bipartisan coalition saying fairness, good maps are not partisan issues,” Nicholson said. “Our coalition speaks for itself.”
Amendment 3 opponents are also concerned about the ballot language: A summary that a panel of appellate judges approved lists the lobbyist gift and campaign donation restrictions before summarizing the changes to the redistricting process. Because some voters make their decisions on ballot initiatives based on that short summation, Nicholson’s group is running ads pointing out that the ethics changes in Amendment 3 are not terribly significant.
Yet perhaps the bigger challenge for Amendment 3 proponents is that they’ll have to convince voters they made a mistake in 2018. Hurst said he doesn’t feel like that’s an insurmountable obstacle.
“We have elections every two years for a reason,” Hurst said. “If the polls today are correct, there’s a certain number of people who have had buyer’s remorse on their presidential vote four years ago. They should not have the ability to change their mind? Or if we take the argument a step further, we should wait 10 years to see if we made a mistake?”
GOP Sen. Lincoln Hough of Springfield said he voted against placing Amendment 3 on the ballot because it’s too soon to say if any unintended consequences actually happen. He said the best option is to wait.
“I would have been more comfortable having let the process play out,” Hough said. “And if you’ve got a spider web where someone from Joplin has a representative from Kansas City, I think the voters would say, ‘Wait a minute … this isn’t what we bargained for.’”
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum