Missouri GOP, fighting redistricting changes, courts unlikely ally: Black Democrats

When state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed hears Republicans express concern that African Americans could be disenfranchised by the overhaul of Missouri’s redistricting process, approved by voters last year, she laughs.

“All of a sudden Republicans are looking out for the best interests of African Americans in Missouri?” the St. Louis Democrat said. “For years they’ve been working to disenfranchise individuals by putting barriers in the way of voting, but now they pretend like they want to protect minority voters. I don’t believe it.”

Nasheed has vowed to do everything she can to derail any repeal effort, a position that puts her squarely alongside most of the General Assembly’s Democrats.

But it places her at odds with many fellow members of the Legislative Black Caucus, where the new redistricting plan has proven divisive.

Clean Missouri, the wide ranging ballot measure passed by voters last year, changed the way state legislative districts will be redrawn after the 2020 census to ensure partisan balance and competitiveness.

An AP analysis last year found the new redistricting plan will likely increase Democrats’ chances of cutting into Republican supermajorities in the state House and Senate.

But Clean Missouri faces opposition from a number of prominent African American Democrats, who said they fear that competitive balance will be achieved at the expense of black voters spread out into majority white districts.

With legislation to repeal Clean Missouri set for debate this week in the Missouri House, divisions among Democrats seem to bolster Republican’s chances.

“There are definitely concerns in the caucus that the way it was written could create long, spaghetti string districts and dilute the black vote at a time when we have historic black representation in the House,” said Rep. Steve Roberts, D-St. Louis, and chairman of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus.

The black caucus hasn’t taken an official position on the issue, but Republicans have seized on the divide. They say protection of African-American legislative districts is among their main motivations for undoing Clean Missouri.

“I fear – and I not only fear, I believe – that its likely this is going to disenfranchise African American voters in St. Louis and Kansas City,” said Sen. Bob Onder, R-St. Charles County.

Clean Missouri’s proponents say those fears are unfounded.

They note that Clean Missouri specifically states that districts must comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed the discriminatory voting practices adopted by many southern states after the Civil War. It also says districts cannot be drawn to deny or abridge the “equal opportunity of racial or language minorities to participate in the political process” or to diminish “their ability to elect representatives of their choice.”

“The race equity provision is the strongest protection in the country right now,” said Yurij Rudensky, who focuses on redistricting issues as legal counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, a group that advised Clean Missouri last year.

Opaque process?

Every 10 years, following the census, Missouri’s 197 legislative districts are redrawn.

Under the previous system, commissions appointed by party committees and the governor got first crack at drawing the new districts.

Republicans and Democrats got an equal number of seats on the commission, which was required to hold at least three public hearings on any proposed legislative maps. The commissions are typically made up of lobbyists, political consultants and elected officials.

For maps to be approved, 70 percent of the commission had to vote in favor. If maps failed to get 70 percent, the state Supreme Court appointed six appellate judges to draw new lines.

Proponents of Clean Missouri argue the old method was driven by politicians serving their own interests in an opaque process designed to protect incumbents. It resulted in legislative districts that were not competitive, they argued, and led to unaccountable politicians.

Under the new system, state Auditor Nicole Galloway, a Democrat, will nominate at least three people for the position of non-partisan state demographer. The names will be submitted to leaders in the state Senate.

If they agree on a name, the process ends there. If not, each party’s Senate leader would remove one-third of the auditor’s nominees, and the auditor would then select the demographer from the remainder through a lottery.

The demographer would craft the maps, which would then be reviewed by a citizen commission that can make changes only if 70 percent approve.

Like the old system, legislative districts would have to be contiguous and compact, and protections to ensure minority representation would remain. But now a competitiveness requirement must be considered as a factor in how districts are drawn, a big change from the previous method.

The goal would be a more even mix of voters in redrawn districts so that one party wouldn’t have an advantage.

“The people read (Clean Missouri). They understood it. They voted for it. Don’t undo the will of the people,” Nimrod Chapel, Jr., president of the NAACP Missouri State Conference and treasurer for the Clean Missouri campaign in 2018.

‘Nakedly political power move’

To Republicans, Clean Missouri was a power grab by Democrats who have been relegated to super minority status in the legislature over the last two decades.

“Is there any problem in the current setup?” said state Rep. Nick Schroer, R-St. Charles County. “I’ve heard a lot about gerrymandering, but I see no evidence of it (in Missouri.)”

Republicans argue that Clean Missouri duped voters into supporting changes to redistricting by including in the ballot measure popular ethics reform proposals such as a limit on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers and lower caps on campaign contributions.

“Clean Missouri was a nakedly political power move,” Onder said. “They got one over on the people of Missouri in November of last year... We need to correct a fraud that was perpetrated on the voters of Missouri.”

A bill that began as a complete ban on lobbyist gifts has transformed into the vehicle for Clean Missouri repeal in the House, essentially returning the state to the previous redistricting system while adding a role for state parties in the selection of the committee that will draw legislative maps.

Rep. Curtis Trent, R-Springfield, recently told a House committee that by de-emphasizing the idea of “compact and contiguous districts,” Clean Missouri puts minority districts at risk.

That was the argument pushed last year in the run up to the November election by Missourians First, a political action committee led by former Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Talent and run by GOP political consultants.

Before last November’s election the PAC provided Freedom Inc. — Kansas City’s black political club — with fliers claiming that the redistricting changes were an attempt by “conservative Democrats and the white establishment” to “get rid of progressive and black voices.”

The Missourians First fliers said Republicans have been “gunning for the Voting Rights Act for years,” and that African American voters “cannot depend on Donald Trump’s Supreme Court to protect minority and progressive voting rights and representation.”

Missourians First also donated $30,000 to Freedom Inc. shortly after the November election.

By contrast, Missourians First distributed fliers in other parts of the state saying the redistricting changes were a scheme by “liberal Democrats” to “manipulate and deceive voters and increase the number of liberal state House and state Senate members.”

Those fliers emphasized that groups like Planned Parenthood and NARAL supported Clean Missouri.

Rep. Brandon Ellington, D-Kansas City and House minority whip, said he doesn’t think Republicans are actually motivated by a desire to protect the rights of African Americans.

“It’s just a wedge issue they’re using to build support,” he said. “I don’t agree with them using that tactic, but I do agree that the redistricting process will be harmful to so-called minority representation.”

Ellington plans to support a repeal of the redistricting changes because “I believe it will reduce the number of black state legislators.”

Rep. Kevin Windham, D-St. Louis County and vice chairman of the House minority caucus, said he has concerns about the impact the new redistricting process could have on African American representation.

“But the voters have spoken,” he said. “Before we make fixes, we should see if it’s broken. Let’s let the demographer do the work, and see where it goes.”

“Personally,” Windham added, “it would take a lot for me to revoke the words voters just put in the constitution less than a year ago.”

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Jason Hancock is The Star’s lead political reporter, providing coverage of government and politics on both sides of the state line. A three-time National Headliner Award winner, he has written about politics for more than a decade for news organizations across the Midwest.