Post-Dispatch: Cole County judge tosses ballot language for repeal of ‘Clean Missouri’

Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

JEFFERSON CITY — A Cole County judge on Monday ordered a new description to appear on the Nov. 3 ballot for Amendment 3, a proposed change to the state constitution that would repeal redistricting changes that Missouri voters approved in 2018.

Circuit Judge Patricia Joyce said the previous summary statement, which the GOP-led Legislature approved in May, was “insufficient and unfair for multiple reasons” — in violation of Missouri law.

She said in her order the language was “insufficient and unfair because it fails to even allude to” the question’s “central feature: the wholesale repeal of voter-approved rules for redistricting and replacing them with prior redistricting rules designed to benefit incumbent legislators.”

Lawmakers earlier this year placed the proposed repeal on the ballot, the culmination of two years of legislative debate over “Clean Missouri,” the campaign for a package of ethics changes that 62% of voters approved in 2018.

The most controversial change that voters approved that year altered the way state legislative districts are drawn, shifting power to a “nonpartisan state demographer” who is to emphasize partisan fairness and competitiveness in maps next year.

In moving to do away with that demographer, and shift control to bipartisan commissions, lawmakers opted to insert their own summary for the Nov. 3 ballot, side-stepping the secretary of state’s office, which usually writes descriptions of measures that appear on ballots.

The Legislature’s summary asked voters to decide whether the constitution should be amended to “ban all lobbyist gifts to legislators and their employees;” “reduce legislative campaign contribution limits;” and “create citizen-led independent bipartisan commissions to draw state legislative districts … .”

The Clean Missouri campaign, which is defending the 2018 ballot question at the polls in November, has argued the Legislature’s wording was illegally misleading.

Barbara Pippens, of Labadie, represented by Jefferson City attorney Chuck Hatfield, challenged the summary language in Cole County Circuit Court.

Hatfield argued that some gifts to lawmakers would still be allowed, that not all legislative campaign contributions would be lowered, and that the summary didn’t mention doing away with the demographer, among other points.

Joyce said that in addition to omitting the question’s “central feature,” the Legislature overstated the proposed limits on lobbyist gifts and campaign contributions to state Senate candidates.

The summary “seeks to entice voters to adopt the measure by misleadingly overstating” the new limits, Joyce said.

The new summary statement Joyce ordered Monday asks if the Missouri Constitution should be amended to “repeal rules for drawing state legislative districts approved by voters in November 2018 … .”

It asks whether campaign contribution limits for state Senate candidates should be lowered by $100; and whether “the legislative gift limit” should be reduced to $0, with exceptions for some lobbyists?”

Sean Nicholson, spokesman for the Clean Missouri campaign, which opposes the Legislature’s proposal, said in a statement Monday: “Politicians may lie to our faces about what they’re trying to do with Amendment 3, but they can’t lie in what appears on the ballot.”

He said proponents are “trying to trick” voters, saying lawmakers had actually put forth a “gerrymandering plan” to protect incumbents.

A spokesman for Sen. Dan Hegeman, R-Cosby, who sponsored the resolution appearing on the Nov. 3 ballot, did not respond to a request for comment.

Chris Nuelle, spokesman for Attorney General Eric Schmitt, said “we’re reviewing the decision and deciding on next steps” when asked if an appeal was in store.