After weeks of legal skirmishes that nearly knocked it off the ballot, voters will decide the fate of a wide-ranging amendment to the state’s constitution known as Clean Missouri next month.
The proposal, which will appear on the November ballot as Amendment 1, includes reforms its advocates argue will help clean up the Missouri General Assembly — ranging from a cap on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers to a requirement that all legislative records be open to the public.
But its most sweeping change, and the most controversial, is how the constitutional amendment overhauls the way state legislative districts are drawn.
To its supporters, Missouri’s current redistricting method is driven by politicians serving their own interests in an opaque process designed to protect incumbents. The lack of competitiveness, they argue, leads to unaccountable politicians.
To its critics, the proposal is a power grab by Democrats who have been relegated to super minority status in the Missouri General Assembly over the last two decades and are now bundling popular ethics reform measures with redistricting changes in an effort to dupe voters.
In the run up to the November election, The Star’s readers wanted to know whether the current method for drawing legislative districts gives either party an unfair advantage. The Star posed the question to its panel of 51 Missourians participating in the Missouri Influencers project, which aims to foster a discussion about the biggest issues facing our state.
“Under the current system lines are drawn in order to provide safe districts for one party or the other,” said John Danforth, a former Republican U.S. Senator. “True political contests do not exist when general election results are foregone conclusions. The real contests occur in primary elections in which the competition favors the candidate who can appear to be the most ideologically extreme.”
Former Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, said Missouri’s redistricting method “has become increasingly partisan, and districts designed for political expediency make for fewer contested races. Both parties play in that process.”
But Jean Paul Bradshaw, a lawyer and former U.S. attorney who served on the commission that drew the most recent state Senate map, said the current system gives neither party an advantage.
“This is a solution in search of a problem,” he said. “Missouri handles redistricting very differently from most other states. There is no need to fix our process — it is not broken.”
The redistricting process
Every 10 years, following the census, Missouri’s 197 legislative districts are drawn by commissions that are appointed by party committees and the governor.
Republicans and Democrats get an equal number of seats on the commission, which must hold at least three public hearings on any proposed legislative maps.
For maps to be approved, 70 percent of the commission must vote in favor. If maps fail to get 70 percent, the state Supreme Court appoints six state appellate judges to draw new district maps.
“By law, half the members of a redistricting commission must be Republicans and half must be Democrats,” said Woody Cozad, a longtime Jefferson City lobbyist and former state GOP chairman. “Where’s the partisan advantage in that?”
Benjamin Singer, spokesman for the Clean Missouri campaign, said the current redistricting process has ensured “Missourians aren’t being offered a real choice at the ballot box.”
“Under the current maps, fewer than 10 percent of state legislative races have been even somewhat competitive,” Singer said, which he defined as elections decided by fewer than 10 percentage points.
Because political party leaders pick who gets to draw the maps, “they choose a bunch of lobbyists, political consultants and politicians,” Singer said. And if the maps go to a judicial commission, “the judges have claimed they are not subject to the Sunshine Law.... So no one knows how decisions are being made — or who’s pulling the strings.”
If approved by voters, Clean Missouri would allow the state auditor to nominate at least three people for the position of non-partisan state demographer. Those nominees would be submitted to legislative leaders in the state Senate.
If the legislative leaders agree on a name, the selection 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 state demographer would craft the legislative maps, which would then be reviewed by a citizen commission that can only make changes if 70 percent approve.
Like current law, legislative districts would have to be contiguous and compact, and protections to ensure minority representation would remain.
But Clean Missouri would add a competitiveness requirement as a factor in how districts are drawn, a big change from the current method. The goal would be to have a more even mix of voters in redrawn districts so that one party wouldn’t have an advantage over the other.
“A non-partisan demographer will be a vast improvement in the current system, and our best opportunity to create more competitive districts,” said Gwendolyn Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City.
The Clean Missouri amendment would not affect how Missouri’s districts for the U.S. House of Representatives are drawn every 10 years. Those Congressional districts would continue to be drawn by state lawmakers themselves.
Republicans are quick to point out that Clean Missouri includes the state auditor in the redistricting process — currently the only statewide office held by a Democrat.
“This is a cynical political power grab by Democrats,” said Gregg Keller, a GOP consultant and principal of Atlas Strategy Group, ”which only the most cynical among us wouldn’t concede.”
James Harris, a veteran GOP consultant, said Clean Missouri “is not about eliminating partisanship, its aim is to bake partisanship into the Constitution and force gerrymandered redistricting that will give Democrats an advantage.”
Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, said the current system has protected incumbents and marginalized minority communities.
“It is not necessarily a bad thing to draw lines to protect incumbents,” she said, “but it is a problem when lines are drawn in such a way as to obviate the ability of minority populations to elect the representative of their choice.”
Mike Burke, a lawyer and former Kansas City Council member, supports the changes envisioned by Clean Missouri because he believes the current system “dilutes the political power of urban area and increases rural areas.”
“There should be balance,” he said. “Kansas City would have more representation under a fair method.”
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Widespread abuses of the judicial system by the Pendergast political machine in the 1930s inspired Missourians to change the way judges were chosen. Voters amended the state constitution to adopt what is now known as the Missouri Plan — in which panels of selected lawyers and citizens name candidates for the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court.
In recent years, Republicans have claimed the system is dominated by trial attorneys who have tilted the ideology of the court. They’d prefer direct election of judges to these courts or a federal-style system where the governor appoints judges with state Senate confirmation.
What questions do you have about judicial selection in Missouri? Tell us at Kansascity.com/influencers to help shape our future coverage.