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In 2018, Missouri voters passed the “Clean Missouri” amendment, which took redistricting out of the hands of politically appointed commissioners and gave it to a single nonpartisan demographer. But this year Missouri’s legislature added a new option on the ballot that would reverse that decision. For our “Roads to Election 2020” series, Zachary Green reports on what’s at stake for MO in this election.
With just a little more than a week until Election Day, we are continuing our series, "Roads to Election 2020," with a look at issues on the ballots in the states of Wisconsin and Missouri.
We start in Missouri. It is one of three states, including Virginia and New Jersey, which will have a chance to change the way their states handle redistricting. That's the process by which state and federal lawmakers are apportioned throughout a state. It's generally done every ten years, once the newest census report is released.
Redistricting is a complicated process but the outcomes have a huge effect on the political makeup of a state and indeed, the whole country.
Each state has its own method of redistricting and attempts to change those methods are often contentious. Missouri voters succeeded in changing their redistricting process two years ago, but a new amendment on the ballot this year could take the state back to its old system. NewsHour Weekend's Zachary Green has the story.
When Shayn Prapaisilp, a St. Louis businessman, voted in the 2018 midterms, one of the biggest issues on the ballot was a constitutional amendment called Clean Missouri.
One of the many reasons why I supported Clean Missouri was Missouri has kind of some of the biggest loopholes when it comes to campaign finance. But just as important, in my opinion, when it comes to my district, is the fair drawing of maps and state legislative districts here in the state.
Clean Missouri, which passed with 62 percent of the vote that year, established limits to campaign contributions and lobbyist gifts to state lawmakers. It also changed the way state legislative districts are drawn.
Before, bipartisan commissioners chosen by the major political parties were in charge of the mapmaking process. If they were unable to agree on a map, the responsibility shifted to Missouri's appellate court. But Clean Missouri assigns that duty to a single nonpartisan demographer and requires that districts be drawn to make them more competitive–meaning they should have as close to a 50-50 split of Republican and Democratic voters as possible.
It added transparency, independence and clear criteria to our state constitution to ensure that voters come first, not politicians.
Sean Nicholson was the Clean Missouri initiative's campaign manager.
We could just see that we've got a legislature where politicians don't really have to worry about their voters back home. Everybody's in these, or almost everyone's in these super-safe districts.
Nicholson points to the lopsided nature of Missouri's legislature. In the last general election, Republican state house and senate candidates, respectively, received about 55 and 58 percent of all statewide votes. And yet, Republicans make up nearly 70 percent of the state house and nearly 68 percent of the state senate.
This is because most Democratic voters are packed into cities, while most Republican voters are spread out over Missouri's suburbs and rural areas. Shayn Prapaisilp says that this is a big reason why he voted in favor of Clean Missouri.
I think all we're asking here for those of us living in more urban areas is to have, you know, not even an equal voice, but a voice in state government.
But supporters of Clean Missouri faced a setback this May, when Missouri's Republican-held legislature approved a resolution that put a new amendment on the ballot: Amendment 3.
This new amendment would revert the redistricting system, eliminating the state demographer and giving mapping power back to bipartisan commissions.
Dave Griffith is a Republican member of Missouri's House of Representatives. He actually voted against the resolution because a majority of his constituents supported Clean Missouri. But he also says that many of them didn't understand the redistricting changes it made. He'll be voting for Amendment 3 in November.
Rep. Dave Griffith:
I think what the legislature and the senate were trying to do in the fix for Amendment 3 was to try and get a better understanding to the voters about what they voted on and give them another chance to be able to make some corrections and course corrections.
Jason Rosenbaum is a political correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio. He's been covering Missouri's redistricting process for over a decade. He says that Republicans see Clean Missouri as an existential threat to their legislative supermajority.
In their view, the way that Clean Missouri is crafted inherently benefits Democrats because if you have to have a competitiveness and partisan fairness standard, that means that it's going to be linked to, like, statewide elections, which are much closer than some legislative races. If you don't have a certain number of legislators, you can't override a veto. And if there's a Democratic governor, there can be a real check and balance between a Republican legislature and the Democrats throughout the state.
Opponents of Amendment 3, like Sean Nicholson, say that it goes even further than reverting back to the old redistricting system.
Generally, all states draw voting districts based on total population. But Amendment 3 says that districts "shall be drawn on the basis of one person, one vote." That could mean that roughly one-and-half million people not eligible to vote, like children and non-citizens, would not be counted during redistricting.
What they want to do is draw maps that don't represent all of our families, that don't represent all of our communities. It would be discriminatory in its impact because communities of color happen to be younger. If your community is undercounted, you don't get your fair share of representation and you don't get your fair share of the resources.
State Representative Griffith says that this issue has been overblown. He says the bigger issue is that by trying to balance the number of Republican and Democratic voters, Clean Missouri could create geographically stretched-out voting districts. That means voters could end up with representatives from outside their communities.
The reason that I'm for Amendment 3 is it's going to keep the districts contiguous. They're going to be close together, that people are going to have access to their representation and be able to talk to their representatives and know who they are.
Political reporter Jason Rosenbaum isn't sure what districts would look like under either amendment. But he does point out that both sides are missing a big issue in this debate — over the past thirty years, almost every bipartisan commission has failed to agree on redistricting. The task then falls to appellate judges, who have drawn five of the last six legislative maps.
The criticism of the judges getting involved was that they didn't have really any expertise in redistricting. I think that some of them may have just wanted to do their jobs and get out of there without really understanding or comprehending what the impact of what they were drawing was.
For the people that are really into the redistricting of Missouri and who have followed this process and really don't feel that judges are the appropriate people to be handling this, I think they just see the Clean Missouri system as a better way of doing things that doesn't necessarily eliminate politics or partisan influences, but tries to reduce them and at the same time creating like the most competitive playing field possible.
For Shayn Prapaisilp, it's these same partisan influences that have cast Missouri voters back into a debate that they decided on two years ago.
I think it says something when two-thirds of Missourians, which, you know, by definition, it has to be a bipartisan group of citizens, said, you know what, you know, regardless of how we are voting for our political candidates, these are the necessary reforms at the bare bones, you know, the kind of the guts of the system that we need to implement.
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Zachary Green began working in online and broadcast news in 2009. Since then he has produced stories all over the U.S. and overseas in Ireland and Haiti. In his time at NewsHour, he has reported on a wide variety of topics, including climate change, immigration, voting rights, and the arts. He also produced a series on guaranteed income programs in the U.S. and won a 2015 National Headliner Award in business and consumer reporting for his report on digital estate planning. Prior to joining Newshour, Zachary was an Associate Producer for Need to Know on PBS, during which he assisted in producing stories on gun violence and healthcare, among others. He also provided narration for the award-winning online documentary series, “Retro Report”.
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