Drawing a line on a map seems straightforward, almost innocuous, but the process of changing Missouri’s legislative boundaries is proving more twisted — and heated.
“They are trying to redraw our districts in a way that will fundamentally change our state Legislature,” said Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, a supporter of Amendment 3 on the Missouri ballot. “They are rewriting the rules of the game.”
Sean Soendker Nicholson, who’s leading the campaign to defeat Amendment 3, said “there’s a lot going on under the hood” with the redistricting measure.
“They have taken this opportunity to break the system in a way Missouri has never seen,” said Nicholson, campaign director for Clean Missouri. “What we have is an effort to undo what voters did and rig the rules.”
Both sides agree that this is a big deal that affects the state’s legislative power structure. They are not alone. Massive amounts of money are flowing into Missouri, including dark money that seeks to defeat Amendment 3 and retain a voter-approved redistricting plan from 2018.
Campaign finance reports show Clean Missouri sitting on $1.3 million in cash to defeat the current redistricting measure. Fair Missouri has raised $246,669 to pass Amendment 3.
Those numbers reflect contributions for the reporting period ending July 15. The big money has poured in since then, nearly all of it from unions and national interest groups intent on defeating Amendment 3. Clean Missouri reported $4.3 million in contributions since the July report, including $1.5 million from the National Education Association in Washington, D.C., and $250,000 each from the Services Employees International Union and the Missouri and Kansas Laborers’ PAC.
Clean Missouri took in $1.06 million from the North Fund, a Washington-based political action committee that supported ballot measures to legalize recreational marijuana in Montana and expand Medicaid in Missouri. Another $300,000 came from the National Redistricting Action Fund, which is affiliated with the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.
Eric Holder, the attorney general under President Barack Obama, launched that committee in 2017 with the stated goal of getting more Democrats elected to state Legislatures in order to eventually redraw congressional maps. With many states beginning redistricting next year, based on the 2020 Census, the time is now to put that plan into place.
“This is going to have an impact, certainly, for a decade,” said Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville.
With that kind of money, and an ultimate goal that’s far more ambitious than the outcome of a single House race in St. Joseph, plan on seeing plenty of television ads between now and Nov. 3. Both sides speak roughly the same language: a commitment to fairness in the redistricting process and a stated opposition to gerrymandering. Both sides haven’t been shy about tucking complex redistricting changes into popular restrictions on lobbyist gifts and other ethics reforms.
A big difference between Amendment 3 and the current law lies in who oversees redistricting and the criteria for drawing maps. The 2018 Clean Missouri law gives the ultimate authority to a demographer who is appointed by the state auditor. Amendment 3 would give that power to 20-person bipartisan panels, appointed by the governor.
Under Clean Missouri, districts are required to be drawn with a goal of partisan fairness, creating more toss-up seats that aren’t dominated by one particular party. Nicholson said 62% of voters agreed in 2018 that this would create a less partisan environment in Jefferson City.
“If you only have to worry about keeping a few donors happy, then there’s no incentive to work together across the aisle to get common solutions,” he said. “If everybody wins running away, and you know who’s going to win when filing closes, then there’s no real way to hold representatives accountable.”
State Sen. Dan Hegeman said there is another way to hold elected officials accountable: Have them elected by your neighbors instead of someone far away. Hegeman, R-Cosby, sponsored the resolution this year that went on the ballot as Amendment 3.
Under the current law, he said, there’s no way to create partisan fairness without districts that feature thin strips that snake between urban and rural areas. Amendment 3 puts more weight on creating districts that keep counties, cities and communities intact.
“I think it does nothing but create these long, spindly districts that have little regard for our traditional county lines,” he said of Clean Missouri. “All I can see is that it will terribly gerrymander the state of Missouri.”
Supporters of the 2018 law said the outcome for most statewide offices often are determined by 10 percentage points or less, so more House and Senate districts should be drawn in a way that reflect that closeness. “The fundamental goal of Amendment 3 is to draw incumbent protection maps,” Nicholson said.
Amendment 3 also changes the way population is counted. The 2018 law uses something called total population, which takes into account children and immigrants who cannot vote. Amendment 3, according to Nicholson, would count eligible voters and ignore children in drawing maps and determining political influence.
“We’re talking about a profound, massive shift in how representation works,” he said.
Luetkemeyer said Amendment 3 conforms with recent court rulings regarding a one person, one vote principle. He agrees that, unlike the 2018 Clean Missouri law, illegal immigrants would not be counted.
“The claims of opponents that the principle would exclude nonvoting minors is completely false,” Luetkemeyer said. “They are trying to mislead people.”
A big part of Clean Missouri’s message is that voters already decided in 2018.
Hegeman, who notes that term limits prevent him from capitalizing on any redistricting change, believes another vote is merited before people in a place like Andrew County wake up one day to find that their representative lives in Kansas City.
“I don’t see this as a partisan issue,” he said. “I see it as an issue that will diminish the voice of rural Missouri, and urban Missouri, for that matter.”