Repeal of voter-approved redistricting plan heads to ballot after Missouri House vote

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The Missouri State House and Capitol Building in Jefferson City, Montana. - Dreamstime/Dreamstime/TNS

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Missourians will get another chance to decide how state legislative districts should be drawn, with the Missouri House approving legislation Wednesday seeking to repeal a redistricting process that was approved by voters in 2018.

The 98-58 vote means a constitutional amendment will be placed on the statewide ballot later this year that, if approved by voters, would toss out a process that calls for a nonpartisan state demographer to draw legislative maps with the goal of making districts as competitive as possible.

State Rep. Dean Plocher, a St. Louis County Republican who sponsored the bill, said voters in 2018 were fooled by a campaign that camouflaged changes to the redistricting process by pairing them with popular ethics reforms such as limiting lobbyist gifts to lawmakers.

“This is a partisan train wreck that I believe should go to the voters of Missouri,” Plocher said.

Plocher’s legislation also includes ethics reform provisions, and the summary that will appear on the ballot later this year begins with provisions banning lobbyist gifts and lowering campaign contribution limits.

The language that appeared on the 2018 ballot led with redistricting, while ethics reforms appeared later.

Democrats said Wednesday that the GOP is seeking to overturn a measure that 62% of voters approved two years ago at a time when the public is distressed and cut off from lawmakers by the COVID-19 outbreak.

“The idea that during this moment in history, at this time in which thousands of our citizens are dying every day, in which unemployment is heading to 25 percent, in which we have a global pandemic unlike anything we’ve seen in a century, the idea that we are meeting today to do this is outrageous,” said Rep. Jon Carpenter, a Democrat.

Under the old method, every 10 years following the census Missouri’s 197 legislative districts were drawn by commissions appointed by Republican and Democratic committees and the governor.

The system approved in 2018, a nonpartisan state demographer will craft maps, which will then be reviewed by a citizen commission that can only make changes if 70% approve.

Like the previous process, legislative districts would have to be contiguous and compact, and protections to ensure minority representation remain.

But the new framework adds partisan competitiveness as a requirement for how districts are drawn. The goal would be to achieve a more even mix of voters in districts so that one party wouldn’t have an advantage.

While it is unlikely to change Republican control of the Missouri General Assembly, the new process will probably increase Democrats’ chances of winning elections and cut into Republicans’ supermajorities in the state House and Senate.

The GOP-backed plan largely reverts back to the old method, with a few significant changes.

A significant chunk of Wednesday’s debate focused on one of those changes that would require that districts be drawn “on the basis of one person, one vote.”

The U.S. Supreme Court first forced states to draw legislative districts with roughly equal populations in two landmark decisions: Baker v. Carr in 1962 and Reynolds v. Sims in 1964.

The two decisions enshrined the one-person, one-vote rule in American constitutional law.

In 2016, the Supreme Court revisited the issue in the case of Evenwell v. Abbott.

The lawsuit was brought by a pair of Texas voters who argued that using total population to draw legislative districts violated the one person, one vote rule, as well as the the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

That’s because, they argued, counting everyone gives districts with high numbers of nonvoters—children and noncitizens in particular—a disproportionately weighted vote.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that states are allowed to use total population in order to comply with one person, one vote. But it did not resolve the question of whether other methods, such as counting only voting-age citizens, are permissible.

Republicans downplayed the significance of the change to a “one person, one vote” standard, saying the purpose was to ensure only citizens were counted when drawing legislative districts.

“It’s a fundamental principle of American democracy,” Plocher said.

Election law experts say the revision could result in a redistricting process that forgoes the use of total population to draw districts and instead excludes all non-voters, most notably children.

Excluding children from the population counted when drawing districts would disproportionately impact communities of color, which have a higher percentage who are under 18, said Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis.

The purpose of the one person, one vote provision, Merideth said, is to dilute the representation on certain groups to benefit the Republican Party.

“If we don’t count children,” he said, “we are weakening the voting power of minority groups.”

Missouri has been using total population to draw legislative districts for nearly 150 years, said Democratic state Rep. Tracy McCreery.

“Why would we want to change how we do things?” she asked, later adding: “This is a way to guarantee districts are drawn in a more Republican manner.”

On Wednesday, state Rep. Curtis Trent, a Republican, offered an amendment to the bill that would have asked voters to change the state constitution to say that “only” U.S. citizens can vote in legislative races.

The constitution currently says “all” citizens can vote.

Trent argued the change is needed to ensure undocumented immigrants can’t vote.

“I would invite folks to spend a few minutes with Google search and see this is happening in other states,” Trent said.

Democrats said it was only being offered to stir anti-immigrant sentiment during an election year, noting Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft’s office clarified earlier this year that under current state law, “you have to be a citizen to register to vote.”

“This is nonsense,” Merideth said. “There is no suggestion anywhere in Missouri that non-citizens should be able to vote, and nowhere have non-citizens in Missouri been able to vote.”

Trent ultimately withdrew his amendment out of concern its inclusion could sabotage the bill’s chances because it would mean the Senate would have to approve the change.

The campaign that helped persuade voters to approve the new redistricting process in 2018 is gearing up to defend that process in 2020.

During Wednesday’s debate, Republicans consistently noted that the political action committee that funded the 2018 campaign — called Clean Missouri — was largely funded by out-of-state groups.

“You’re getting the wool pulled over your eyes by out-of-state billionaires,” Plocher said.

Clean Missouri received hundreds of thousands of dollars from groups with long involvement in Missouri politics, most notably labor unions like the National Education Association.

But it also received around $1 million from The Action Now Initiative, a Texas nonprofit affiliated with John and Laura Arnold, billionaire natural gas hedge fund investors.

The Action Now Initiative does not disclose its donors.

So far this year, The Action Now Initiative has donated another $500,000 to Clean Missouri. It got another $450,000 from unions.

Sean Nicholson, who helped lead the 2018 Clean Missouri campaign, said he has no doubt voters will reject the GOP-backed proposal, which he has dubbed “Dirty Missouri.”

“We know Dirty Missouri is beatable,” he said. “And we will beat it.”

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©2020 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)