Missouri Republicans’ gerrymandering power grab is a political emergency

Clean Missouri supporters in Jeff City last August.

In November 2018, a resounding 62 percent of Missouri voters approved Constitutional Amendment One, better known as Clean Missouri.

The amendment restored a modicum of sanity and fairness to a legislature with a reputation for the kind of corruption that tends to grow out of a lack of transparency. Clean Missouri replaced the state’s bipartisan system for drawing legislative districts with a nonpartisan system. It required legislative records to be open to the public. It mandated that politicians wait two years before becoming lobbyists. It placed a cap on lobbyist gifts at five dollars. And it constrained campaign contribution limits. Every single bit of Clean Missouri was nonpartisan and common sense.

Which is to say: anathema to a certain kind of Missouri Republican.

“The polls had not even been closed yet, and there was already chatter about how they [lawmakers] were going to have to work to undo it,” says Sean Soendker Nicholson, the director of the Clean Missouri campaign. “Some folks in Jefferson City have grown accustomed to the old way of doing things. They enjoy operating in secret, they enjoy that lobbyist-gift gravy train, and they enjoy running in districts where the outcome was decided long before election day.”

No surprise then, that the 2019 legislative session, which is scheduled to end May 17, has seen multiple members of the Missouri House and Senate introduce resolutions that would undo parts of Clean Missouri or repeal it entirely. And because Republicans enjoy supermajorities in both chambers, these bills stand a pretty good shot at passing. One proposal, HJR 48, passed 100-49 in the House yesterday.

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Clean Missouri really does represent a substantial departure from the way redistricting previously worked in the state.

It created a new state position: a nonpartisan demographer responsible for drawing the legislative district maps for the House and Senate. The amendment also listed and ranked six priorities — among them, racial equity, partisan fairness (which is calculated using a specific formula for the demographer to consider when drawing those maps), geographical contiguity, and compactness.

Once the maps are drawn, the demographer makes public the redistricting plan and the data used to conceive it. This information is then reviewed by bipartisan commissions in the House and Senate. Those two commissions can then make changes to the plan, but only with 70 percent support of their members.

That’s a major improvement over the way things used to work. Before Clean Missouri passed, there was no state demographer and only three requirements were considered: equal population, contiguity, and compactness. A recipe, in other words, for rampant gerrymandering.

One of the reasons Evelyn Maddox campaigned for Clean Missouri was because she didn’t think the former redistricting plan did enough to curb gerrymandering. Maddox is the co-president of the Kansas City chapter of the League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to mobilizing voters via information about candidates and issues.

“If you would find the map on the internet of the district boundaries, you would see that some of them have very odd shapes, which implies constructing the district to favor somebody or something,” Maddox says.

She also points out that unopposed election races indicate an unfair system. In the 2018 general election for the Missouri House of Representatives, nearly 25 percent of district races were unopposed.

Bob Johnson, a city council member in Lee’s Summit who spent a combined 23 years in the Missouri Legislature as a Republican, says another indicator of gerrymandering is the division of cities with populations under the amount needed for one legislative district. For example, parts of Lee’s Summit are divided into five state senate districts — despite the fact the city doesn’t have a population large enough to fill one.

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The bill Rep. Dean Plocher (R-St. Louis) introduced in February of this year, HJR 48, seemed straightforward: a ban on all lobbyist gifts, rather than the five-dollar cap approved by Clean Missouri. But Nicholson was skeptical of the legislation. A longtime observer of Missouri politics, Nicholson feared provisions might be added to the proposal later on that would alter Clean Missouri’s redistricting process.

He was right. A House Committee Substitute combined HJR 48 with Rep. Phil Christofanelli’s (R-St. Peters) HJR 46 and Rep. Curtis Trent’s (R-Springfield) HJR 47. The end result is a proposal to alter several aspects of Clean Missouri’s plan for drawing legislative districts.

Under this plan, the role of the nonpartisan demographer would be replaced with “Independent Bipartisan Citizens Commissions” for the House and Senate. Critically, these commissions would not be required to make the demographic and partisan data used to draft the maps open to the public. And the commission members would be appointed by the governor from nominees provided by Republicans and Democrats.

Nicholson says the citizen commissions are essentially the same thing as the prior bipartisan commissions, just under different names. He says the nonpartisan demographer is necessary because it gives everyone a “fair shake.”

“The reason it’s important to add independence to the process is that those commissions have traditionally been made up of political consultants and lobbyists, and political appointees who are more interested in communicating their own parochial or partisan future,” Nicholson says.

The proposal would also prioritize contiguity and compactness considerations over partisan fairness and competitiveness. In recent weeks, we’ve also seen state Republicans arguing that Clean Missouri’s redistricting rules will cost African American lawmakers seats in the legislature. But that’s plainly not true: Clean Missouri’s provisions outline that districts must be drawn in a way that achieves racial equity.

In fact, Yurij Rudensky says Clean Missouri is one of the fairest plans for drawing legislative districts in the country because it protects communities of color. Rudensky studies best practices for avoiding gerrymandering in the state legislative redistricting process at the New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice. He says it’s important to keep racial equity and partisan fairness at a higher priority than compactness and contiguity.

“There are at least seven different ways compactness can be measured,” says Rudensky. “So it’s something that can be used as a veil to hide behind when really there is something untoward, when there are partisan or racial manipulations going on behind the scenes.”

HJR 48 could go before one more vote in the House on Thursday, and if it passes again, it will advance to the Senate.

A number of other proposals also threaten Clean Missouri. HJR 57, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Pogue (R-Salem), calls for a full repeal of the amendment, though that bill has not progressed past its committee hearing.

On the Senate side, two proposals sponsored by Sen. Dave Schatz (R-Sullivan) and Sen. Bill Eigel’s (R-Weldon Springs), would also change redistricting provisions, but neither have been debated in committee. SJR 13, however, has made it past committee into the perfection stage.

Sponsored by Sen. Jason Holsman (D-Kansas City), it would exclude certain records under Clean Missouri’s open records provisions. Sen. Bob Onder (R-St. Charles) offered an amendment to SJR 13 that would alter the redistricting process, but it has not been added to the legislation. Holsman did not return The Pitch’s request for a comment about his proposal.

Rep. Shamed Dogan (R-Ballwin) put forth HB 445, and Sen. Ed Emery (R-Lamar) filed SB 132 — both would reduce legislative records made public under the Sunshine Law. Dogan’s bill is now being debated in the Senate, and Emery’s bill is in perfection stages.

The fate of these proposals will be determined in May, as the legislative season comes to a close. It is worth noting that all of these proposals — excluding HB 445 and SB 132 — require constitutional amendments, and, if passed by the legislature, would have to go before Missouri voters in November 2020.

Nicholson, Maddox, and Johnson say if any of these proposals make it onto the ballot in 2020, they’ll just have to get back out there to educate the public about the importance of an independent redistricting process. But Johnson says that 2020 is probably the only window lawmakers have to try to make any changes to Clean Missouri’s redistricting provisions.

“If this stays in effect in 2020, that means the reapportionment requirements will be completed by 2022,” Johnson says. “If you wait for another election cycle, you’re going to say to people, ‘I know we’ve just redrawn all the boundaries, but let’s do it over again.’ So I think it becomes even more difficult after that.”

On Twitter: @ByEmilyAPark.

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