The way Missouri draws its state House and Senate districts will be up for referendum later this year after the House Wednesday backed a ballot initiative aimed at repealing the so-called Clean Missouri redistricting system.
It’s a move that could greatly increase the power of appellate judges to draw state legislative districts — and make compactness a bigger priority in mapmaking than competitiveness and partisan fairness.
At issue is an initiative known as Clean Missouri, a constitutional amendment that voters overwhelmingly approved in 2018 that included state redistricting and ethics changes. A demographer would draw House and Senate maps — with an emphasis on partisan fairness and competitiveness. Bipartisan House and Senate commissions would have a chance to overrule the demographer if 70% of members object under certain circumstances.
On Wednesday, the House approved by a 98-to-56 vote Sen. Dan Hegeman’s resolution that largely does away with the Clean Missouri system. It eliminates the demographer, and instead has bipartisan commissions or appellate judges draw House and Senate maps.
Democrats and others opposed to the repeal said it reversed what the residents of the state want. The plan passed statewide with a 62% majority.
Republicans who backed Hegeman’s resolution said Clean Missouri was inherently deceptive, because its backers emphasized popular ideas like banning lobbyist gifts in advertisements instead of its complex new redistricting system.
“They put ballot candy on the ballot so that you think you’re voting for lobbyist gifts,” said Rep. Justin Hill, R-Lake St. Louis. “Because who wouldn’t want to ban lobbyist gifts? I would love to ban lobbyists. 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.’”
Since bipartisan commissions have traditionally deadlocked, Hegeman’s ballot measure could effectively give redistricting power to appellate judges. Rep. Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Charles County, noted judges who participated in the 2011 process told St. Louis Public Radio they didn’t use political affiliation data when drawing districts.
“The maps have not been gerrymandered,” Christofanelli said. “It was a scam. And now we have to give our constituents an opportunity to vote on a fair process.”
Many Clean Missouri detractors, including Rep. Dean Plocher, R-Town & Country, have contended that the new redistricting system was not actually about fairness — but creating a better playing field for Democrats.
“I think communities should decide where communities should stand in the process,” said Plocher, who handled Hegeman’s ballot item in the House. “And I propose that this decision should go to the voters.”
But there was a bipartisan contingent of lawmakers who voted against the ballot item. More than a dozen Republicans joined most of the Democratic caucus in voting against sending the measure to the ballot.
Reps. Trish Gunby, D-St. Louis County, and Deb Lavender, D-Kirkwood, noted that many St. Louis County-based House districts overwhelmingly supported Clean Missouri. Lavender added that her constituents “want nothing to do with this Dirty Missouri proposal at all.”
And Rep. LaDonna Appelbaum, D-St. Louis County, said she hasn’t received a single email or phone call urging her to vote for Hegeman’s resolution. She also questioned why lawmakers were working on this issue when Missourians were suffering from the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re here in the Capitol while people are dying,” Appelbaum said. “They are sick. They are unemployed. We have meat plants with increased caseloads every day. Nursing homes filled with people dying of COVID. And this is what we’re working on? It’s shameful. It’s a disgrace.”
Democrats also argued that elements of the proposal would help Republicans. For one thing, the emphasis on compactness could hurt Democrats since their voters tend to be condensed in urban and inner-ring suburbs.
But most of the speakers on Wednesday focused on a provision in Hegeman’s ballot item that counts population based on eligible voters as opposed to total population — a move lawmakers like Rep. Jon Carpenter, D-Clay County, said could leave children out when adding up the amount of people that live in certain areas.
“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,” Carpenter said. “This is a radical and fundamental change to the democratic process in this country.”
Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, also pointed out that the measure does away with language aimed at encouraging racial groups to join together in creating “coalition districts.”
“There’s a lot of research out there that shows minority communities often, when collectively put together, vote in different ways than majority communities,” Merideth said. “So this protection was put in place to make sure we don’t have lines drawn intentionally in a way that limits those communities’ impact on the process.”
But Democratic Rep. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, of University City, voted for Hegeman’s resolution. She’s argued for several years that the language in the Clean Missouri redistricting system is not strong enough to prevent majority-black districts from becoming more white.
Chappelle-Nadal, who is African American, said she was voting for the measure to preserve black political power.
“Sometimes we have to stand up when it is not popular,” said Chappelle-Nadal, who is term limiting out of the General Assembly after 16 years in the House and Senate. “Sometimes we have to stand up when we know we’re going to get the phone calls, we know we’re going to get the emails, we know that we’re going to have people who are going to stare us in the face and ask us, ‘Why did you do that?’
“It matters who I work with,” she added. “It matters who is willing to ignore the black political voice.”
It may be a heavy lift for backers of Hegeman’s proposal to get voter buy-in.
Even before the House voted, a campaign committee aimed at keeping the Clean Missouri system has been actively raising money and ballot items that have organized opposition traditionally have had a harder time passing.
"The politicians pushing the deceptive Dirty Missouri amendment have ignored their constituents' mandate for fair maps,” said a statement from the Clean Missouri campaign. “They've ignored the growing bipartisan opposition to their radical plan. They've ignored public statements from one of their own leaders that their amendment has 'errors.’”
That statement was referencing GOP Rep. Rocky Miller’s prediction that Hegeman’s resolution would “go down in flames” when it’s put up for a vote.
It will now be up to Gov. Mike Parson when to schedule a vote on the redistricting ballot item — likely in either the August primary or November general election.
Jason Rosenbaum talked about this story on St. Louis on the Air. Hear his conversation with host Sarah Fenske:
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