Legislators should respect voters and redistricting process

Originally published in The St. Louis American.

In the last election, voters in every state senate district approved Amendment 1 – also known as Clean Missouri – to increase fairness, accountability, integrity and transparency in Missouri politics. Thanks to Clean Missouri, our state constitution now includes nonpartisan redistricting reforms that create fair legislative district maps and a fair redistricting process that will ensure our elected officials listen to their voters – not just lobbyists and partisan operatives.

Clean Missouri enshrined the Voting Rights Act in the Missouri Constitution and added strong language protecting the voting power of communities of color. The Brennan Center for Justice, St. Louis County NAACP, Missouri NAACP State Conference, Action St. Louis, Organization for Black Struggle, League of Women Voters, and many other groups supported Amendment 1 because it made racial fairness central to the drawing of legislative districts.

The St. Louis County NAACP, Missouri NAACP State Conference and League of Women Voters of Missouri reviewed Amendment 1 carefully before endorsing it. Our members said they wanted fair maps drawn after each census where every vote would count.

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Sadly, some politicians and lobbyists in Jefferson City do not want fair district maps and believe that only certain people should count. Resolutions have been fast-tracked in both chambers of our state legislature to replace Amendment 1’s reforms with a less transparent process that would allow extreme partisan gerrymandering and would weaken the strong protections for voters of color that are in our constitution now.

These dangerous new schemes would also eliminate the independence and transparency added to the constitution by voters, give state political parties new powers to rig maps in the future, and take away our rights to challenge unfair maps in court.

It gets worse. The gerrymandering plans moving in the legislature would open the door to not counting everyone in future maps, cutting out children and non-citizens from the state’s population for purposes of redistricting. This is part of a devious long-term national strategy to further divide our country and undermine the principles of representative democracy. As the gerrymandering mastermind Thomas B. Hofellerwrote to his funders a few years ago, using this method for redistricting “would be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites.”

But here’s the good news: the bipartisan statewide coalition and 1.4 million voters who supported Clean Missouri in 2018 are watching, and we will be working to make sure these gerrymandering schemes never become law.

We must have fair maps to protect Missouri voters and make sure each vote counts. Let’s defend the will of voters and stop the Jefferson City gerrymandering plans.

Louise Wilkerson is co-president of the League of Women Voters of Metro St. Louis. John Bowman is president of the St. Louis County NAACP.

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Nonpartisan Redistricting Experts and Citizen Reformers Denounce SJR38 Gerrymandering Plan

JEFFERSON CITY – National anti-gerrymandering experts joined Missouri reformers in denouncing the Missouri State Senate’s final passage of SJR38, a proposal that seeks to roll back redistricting reforms passed overwhelmingly by Missouri voters in 2018 — and put new language into the state constitution allowing lobbyists and political appointees to gerrymander maps in 2021.

SJR38 passed the State Senate tonight, despite bipartisan opposition from voters — and bipartisan opposition in the Senate chamber.

The proposed constitutional amendment would:

  • Overturn the will of 1.4 million Missourians who supported the Clean Missouri Amendment
  • Allow lobbyists and partisan political appointees to rig maps for their own interests in secretive backrooms.
  • Allow communities to be split up by political appointees
  • Remove the nonpartisan independence added to the state’s map-drawing process.
  • Dramatically weaken race equity standards.

“We can’t let a handful of politicians and lobbyists overturn the will of the people. Republicans, Democrats, and Independents came together in 2018 and voted for the nonpartisan redistricting reforms in Amendment 1 by an almost 2-to-1 margin,” said Rod Chapel, President of the NAACP Missouri State Conference. “SJR38 would not just reverse the reforms 62 percent of voters supported, they would drag Missouri even further back with new tricks to make redistricting more partisan, more secretive, and more unfair than ever before, resulting in some of the worst gerrymandering in the nation.”

“Missouri politicians continue to ignore the will of their voters, who supported fair maps by an almost 2-to-1 margin at the polls,” said Chris Lamar, Legal Counsel at Campaign Legal Center. “These gerrymandering plans proposed by self-interested politicians would overturn the will of the people, making it harder to achieve the independent redistricting process voters sought when they passed Amendment 1.”

“SJR38 would move Missouri in the wrong direction right before new districts are drawn in 2021. Like last year’s proposal, these changes would make the redistricting process easier to rig by removing independence and protections designed to deliver fairness,” said Yurij Rudensky, Redistricting Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. “These aren’t reform because the public stands to gain nothing.”

“Whatever your opinion of the Clean Missouri initiative, SJR38 is a giant step backward,” said Justin Levit, Professor of Law at Loyola Law School. “It guts what the voters demanded; it puts the line-drawers back in the pockets of the politicians; it undermines protections for minority populations. And it adds constraints, but in the worst possible way, with artificial, abstract rules that only have teeth when they cut through the heart of real communities where real people live.”

“Voters in every state senate district approved Clean Missouri because they want fair maps and a stronger voice in government,” said Louise Wilkerson, League of Women Voters of Metro St. Louis Co-President. “The resolutions introduced in both houses would drop Amendment 1’s independent demographer, hide the data used for the final maps and set a weaker race equity standard. Instead of improving our redistricting process after the 2020 Census, SJR38 would give political parties more power and allow an unprecedented level of racial and political gerrymandering.”

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Our view: The sound of silence should give lawmakers their cue on Amendment 1

Originally published in The Joplin Globe

Where is the hue and cry from the Missouri public to repeal part of Amendment 1, which was passed overwhelmingly by voters in 2018?

We’re not hearing it.

Lawmakers, who gather Wednesday in Jefferson City to launch the legislative session, say one of their priorities is repealing that part of the amendment that determines how legislative districts will be drawn going forward.

Yet we’re not hearing from anyone — anyone — other than lawmakers that this should be a goal, and certainly not the priority that lawmakers think it should be.

In fact, that’s how we got the amendment, known as Clean Missouri, in the first place — lawmakers weren’t listening.

They weren’t listening when Missourians said they wanted tougher campaign contribution limits.

They weren’t listening when Missourians said they wanted to rein in the influence of lobbyists and in particular the gifts those lobbyists rained down on lawmakers.

They weren’t listening when Missourians said they wanted a longer cooling off period before lawmakers could become paid lobbyists.

And they weren’t listening when Missourians said lawmakers should be subject to the state’s Sunshine Law.

They simply weren’t listening.

And so all of that — along with redistricting — was bundled into a single amendment that sailed through; Amendment 1 passed 62-38 percent. Now it’s not that a majority can’t be wrong, but the new redistricting mechanism hasn’t been tried yet to find out if it is a better, fairer, less partisan approach.

Critics cried that Amendment 1 was a Trojan horse, and that redistricting was wrapped up in ethics reform to make it palatable. Maybe, but it was lawmakers who provided the wood and tools to build that horse by ignoring the frustration of voters.

Anyway, we think voters knew what they were doing in November 2018.

We urge lawmakers to listen to what Missourians had to say barely a year ago.

And we urge them to listen now.

What will they hear?

Nothing.

And nothing is what they should do with regard to Amendment 1.

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Our opinion: General Assembly needs to step up its game

Originally published in Neosho Daily News

The Missouri General Assembly meets for more than four months each year and consistently has little to show for its efforts.

Given that limitation, a list of do’s and don’ts for 2020 makes sense as legislators convene next week.

Start with the don’ts. There is no reason for legislators to try to undo what 62 percent of the voters approved in 2018 with the Clean Missouri initiative. That effort cuts down on such things as lobbyist gifts to legislators, but what really upset Republican leaders in Jefferson City is the attempt to get a handle on gerrymandering legislative districts. That is the chief means by which the party in power in Jefferson City tries to stay in power.

Republican leaders have made it clear that stopping Clean Missouri is among their top priorities. But the voters have spoken, and the plan they adopted should go forward.

If they set that aside, legislators would have more time to:

• Find funding and a solid plan to process the 7,000 untested rape kits across the state. These are from victims who have come forward, and they are being denied justice. This is inexcusable.

• Get to the bottom of why thousands of children have been dropped from Medicaid rolls, when other states have not seen similar declines. The fact that no one in power in Jefferson City wants to talk about it doesn’t mean it’s not important.

• Reverse a bad law from several years ago that undercuts cities’ abilities to enforce their own traffic laws. There is in effect no sanction for those who just don’t pay a ticket and don’t show in court to contest it. Let cities do their jobs.

• Put an end to the so-called “gray machine” gambling devices that have cropped up at convenience stores and elsewhere across the state. There are an estimated 14,000 of them, and the Missouri Gaming Commission has determined that they are illegal. They are unregulated and untaxed, meaning less for schools and other services that legal gambling in Missouri supports. This may take more courage than legislators can muster, since the company behind these machines is politically connected.

• Go slowly and carefully on allowing sports betting.

• Pay the state’s bills. Missouri is millions of dollars in arrears on its obligations to pay counties for inmates held on state charges – $3.5 million to Jackson County alone.

Finally, there are the larger issues that evade significant action year after year.

The sharp rise in gun violence in Missouri is the direct result of policies enacted by this legislative body. At the very least, if the state won’t act, it can let cities take the steps they deem necessary to protect the lives of their citizens.

The state’s roads and bridges are significantly underfunded, the effects are evident, and it’s holding Missouri back. Education and workforce development – a critical need in the state – go hand in hand, but the state lacks an overall vision and has been content to muddle along in a time when that’s just not good enough. Gov. Mike Parson has said these are his highest priorities; the Legislature hasn’t been listening.

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Legislators have better things to do than overturn Clean Missouri

Originally published in The Kansas City Star

Get the facts The Clean Missouri Initiative

Missouri voters overwhelmingly approved the Clean Missouri initiative in November 2018. The measure creates new rules for lawmakers in Jefferson City, including limits on contributions from lobbyists.

Republican leadership in the Missouri legislature is preparing to demonstrate its contempt for the state’s voters, and also for basic fairness in elections.

A ballot measure overturning parts of the Clean Missouri initiative is a top priority for GOP lawmakers next year. Clean Missouri, passed in 2018 with 62% of the vote, established important ethics reforms, including a cap on lobbyist gifts to legislators.

But the most important part of Clean Missouri set up a new method for drawing state legislative districts. It established a neutral state demographer to oversee a process designed to protect the interests of every Missourian.

“Districts shall be designed in a manner that achieves both partisan fairness and, secondarily, competitiveness,” the Missouri Constitution now says, with a mathematical formula for approaching that goal.

Fairness and competitiveness are anathema to many Missouri Republicans, who want to maintain an iron grip on power through gerrymandered state legislative districts. So they plan to debate measures to repeal and replace parts of Clean Missouri before the results of the 2020 census are in.

The state’s voters would have to approve any changes.

“We will move on it very quickly,” Missouri House Speaker Elijah Haahr told The Star. State Rep. Curtis Trent, a Springfield Republican, has pre-filed a resolution that would put partial repeal of the amendment on the 2020 ballot. State Sen. Bill Eigel, a Republican from Weldon Spring, has filed a similar proposal.

These efforts, and others, must be resisted at every opportunity.

Despite GOP claims to the contrary, voters knew what they wanted in 2018. Clean Missouri was placed on the ballot through initiative petition — more than 300,000 of the state’s residents said they wanted a vote on the proposal. More than 1.4 million voters endorsed it that November.

Since its passage, state Republicans — including Gov. Mike Parson — have hinted that voters were confused by the proposal. They were not. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a greater insult to voters than to suggest they didn’t know what Clean Missouri would do.

“The voters had one option on the ballot in 2018, and they picked it,” Haahr told The Star. He’s just wrong. Voters had two options: yes or no. They voted yes, in overwhelming numbers. Rejecting their judgment would be an assault on their intelligence and the petition process itself.

And for what? Clean Missouri doesn’t force anyone to vote for a specific candidate or party. It merely establishes a mechanism to make state legislative races more competitive and fair in the 2022 elections.

By most analyses, Republicans would maintain control of the General Assembly even after redistricting. But a fairer system would likely mean smaller majorities: In 2018, the Associated Press found, Missouri Republicans won 57% of votes in state House races, but 71% of the seats.

That’s how gerrymandering works.

State lawmakers have a long agenda of issues that demand attention in 2020. Gun violence plagues the state’s big cities, roads and bridges continue to crumble, and the public defender system is unconstitutional. Tackling those issues, and others, should be a top priority next year.

Telling voters their 2018 ballots didn’t matter should not be on lawmakers’ to-do list. Clean Missouri is working as intended, and the state’s leadership should turn its attention to other issues.

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Repealing Clean Missouri Amendment At Top Of The List For Some Lawmakers

Originally published in St. Louis Public Radio

The Clean Missouri amendment was passed by 62% of voters in 2018, but repealing at least part of it in the 2020 legislative session is a top priority for some lawmakers.

The constitutional amendment was billed as a way to “clean up Missouri politics” by capping campaign contributions, limiting the powers of lobbyists and revamping the redistricting process.

Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, said the measure should have never made it on the ballot because it included too many topics.

“In spite of that measure getting 62% of the vote, I don’t really know what the people said yes to,” Eigel said. “Was it Sunshine Law changes? Was it campaign contribution-limit changes? Was it redistricting changes?”

An appeals court has already ruled on that issue. The court decided that while there are multiple provisions, they all relate to a single purpose of limiting partisan or special-interest influence in the Legislature.

As a part of the effort to overturn the amendment, Eigel said he also wants to change the entire process for amending the state constitution.

“Right now, a 50-plus-1% threshold, gaining a small number of signatures from only six of our eight congressional districts … is one of the lowest standards we have to change a state constitution anywhere in the country,” Eigel said.

Currently, getting an amendment to the state constitution on the ballot requires signatures from 8% of voters in six of Missouri’s congressional districts. Depending on the district, that ranges from 25,000 to 30,000 signatures in each district.

Many Democrats have said they will try to stop any effort to repeal the amendment. Rep. Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, said voters spoke loud and clear.

“Not everyone in our caucus agrees with Clean Missouri, but as I said, the voters overwhelmingly told us that’s what they wanted.”

Some Democrats have concerns about redrawing the state legislative districts, including whether it could dilute African American voting.

Eigel said he expects Clean Missouri to be one of the first discussions in the Senate during the 2020 legislative session.

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Respect the voters’ will, quit attacking Clean Missouri

Originally published in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Repealing Missouri’s new redistricting system should not be on the 2020 legislative agenda, much less a priority (“Clock is ticking for Republicans eyeing repeal of Missouri’s new redistricting system,” Dec. 2).

In 2018 voters across the state approved Amendment 1, known as Clean Missouri, that featured an improved way of drawing district maps. Rep. Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, says he and other opponents of Clean Missouri wouldn’t “be overturning the will of the voters” if they put redistricting back on the ballot. In fact, the Missouri Legislature has a worrisome record of overturning Missouri voters on multiple issues, including puppy mills and casino tax revenue for education.

After the 2010 Census, it took two years to win court approval for new maps for Missouri’s House and Senate districts that were drawn behind closed doors to protect incumbents and their parties. About 90% of races under the current maps have not been competitive.

Amendment 1 is designed to ensure that neither party gets an unfair advantage when maps are drawn and makes racial fairness central to the process. Legislative leaders from both parties will have a role in selecting an independent demographer to draw maps that will then be reviewed by a citizen commission that must hold public hearings. That’s what 62% of voters supported.

The purpose of redistricting after each census is to guarantee fair and equal access to the political process for all citizens. We believe in good government and equal voting rights for all. Legislators should have more respect for Missouri voters.

Evelyn Maddox • Kansas City
President, League of Women Voters of Missouri

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6 apply for Missouri’s nonpartisan redistricting post

Originally published in Associated Press

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — About half a dozen people have applied for an influential new job in Missouri to draw state legislative districts under a nationally unique mandate to achieve “partisan fairness” and “competitiveness” in elections.

Missouri’s “nonpartisan state demographer” position was created by a voter-approved constitutional amendment last year to try to diminish the potential for political gamesmanship when state House and Senate districts are redrawn after the 2020 census.

People interested faced a Wednesday deadline to apply to State Auditor Nicole Galloway. She said Thursday that her office will forward at least six completed applications to the top Republican and Democrat in the Senate, who can select one for the job. A seventh applicant is still under review.

“The real goal here is to get an honest broker and a nonpartisan actor who can help counterbalance the partisan interests that have driven this process in the past,” said Sean Nicholson, a Democratic consultant who led the campaign for the redistricting ballot measure.

Missouri is one of eight states where voters have enacted redistricting reforms targeting partisan gerrymandering during the past decade. About one-third of all states will use independent or bipartisan commissions as part of their redistricting process after the 2020 census. But Missouri is the only state to mandate the use of a specific mathematical formula to try to engineer fair and competitive elections.

The new nonpartisan demographer will use that formula to create proposed maps for the state House and Senate that will be submitted to a pair of existing bipartisan state commissions. Those commissions will be able make changes to the demographer’s plans only by a 70% vote.

Missouri’s districts for the U.S. House will continue to be crafted by the state Legislature, subject to veto by the governor.

Republicans currently hold the Missouri governor’s office and supermajorities in both legislative chambers, though control of all of those will be at stake in the 2020 elections. Redistricting is scheduled to occur in 2021.

Missouri’s current state Senate districts were adopted by a bipartisan commission after the 2010 census. Its state House districts were drawn by a judicial panel after a bipartisan commission failed to agree on a plan.

In the 2018 elections, Republican candidates received an average of 57% of the two-party vote across Missouri’s 163 House districts, yet Republicans won 71% of the seats. That gave them a 116-47 majority over Democrats — about 13 more GOP seats than would have been expected based on their share of the total vote, according to an Associated Press analysis that used the same mathematical formula prescribed by the ballot measure.

The AP analysis of Missouri’s new redistricting formula shows it has the potential to end the Republicans’ supermajorities and move the chambers closer to the more even partisan division that is often reflected in statewide races. But the size of the likely Democratic gains remains uncertain, partly because the formula has never been put to the test.

The constitutional amendment approved by voters requires the new demographer to be a Missouri resident but leaves specific qualifications up to Galloway, a Democrat who is challenging Republican Gov. Mike Parson. Galloway’s application form requires people to have a college degree with coursework in demographic or statistical analysis and several years of professional experience using geographic information systems and statistical software.

The auditor’s office said one applicant appeared not to have the required professional experience but could still submit documentation showing he does.

The six eligible applicants include three employees of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources — Donald Cripe, Bryan Kinworthy and Robert Zane Price; retired Air Force officer Jason Ross; city of Columbia engineering technician Damon Braidlow; and Sara Hartman, an office employee at Faith Lutheran Church in Jefferson City.

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Editorial: Scuttling Clean Missouri would be a GOP step away from ethics and transparency

Originally published in The St. Louis Post Dispatch

Republican state lawmakers should think twice before they consider new efforts to overturn Amendment 1, the Clean Missouri measure that voters statewide approved overwhelmingly in 2018. Supporters of a new effort to scuttle it either think voters are stupid and don’t know what they want, or that lawmakers know better than voters do about what’s best for democracy. Either way, Missourians from both parties have ample reason to feel insulted that their will is being disrespected.

The amendment forced changes to state ethics laws that lawmakers had repeatedly thwarted when such measures came up in bills. Clean Missouri limits lobbyist gifts to $5 and forces lawmakers to abide by the state’s Sunshine Law.

The measure won support among 62% of voters, meaning its popularity transcended the usual partisan boundaries. The reason Republican and Democratic voters agreed on this measure is that it just made good sense. Who wouldn’t want their lawmakers to be more publicly accountable? Who wouldn’t want to limit the financial influence of lobbyists?

Well, some GOP lawmakers, apparently. Des Peres Republican state Rep. Dean Plocher led the charge in this year’s session to roll back Clean Missouri. Luckily he failed in the final days of the session. According to the logic behind his bill, voters didn’t really know what they were doing and thus needed a chance to reconsider.

“We’re not trying to repeal anything with Amendment 1. … We’re not overturning the will of the voters. The voters are going to have their day,” Plocher stated last April as he pressed for approval of a new ballot measure on the House floor.

The ballot language was crystal clear about the goals of this amendment. Voters already had their day, and their decision is now etched in the state constitution. What lawmakers like Plocher are particularly irked by is the amendment’s provision placing future redistricting decisions in the hands of a non-partisan state demographer. The system restricts Republicans’ ability to gerrymander districts and continue heavily skewing representation to their party’s benefit. It’s the inherent fairness of the new system that drives some GOP lawmakers crazy.

The party hates this amendment so much, its former chairman, Todd Graves, transferred $200,000 out of the GOP account to help fund an effort to fight it ahead of last year’s vote. Think about that for a moment: The state GOP diverted campaign funds to fight a measure designed to improve transparency, strengthen ethical guidelines and create fairer elections. Why would any party do that?

These aren’t the actions of a party committed to honoring the will of the people. Respect for democracy and clean government are furthest from their minds. Theirs is a quest to retain overwhelming domination of the Legislature, and if voter wishes have to be trampled to make that happen, well, so be it.

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We’re Back.

In November 2018, Missouri voters overwhelmingly passed Amendment 1. It was a landslide victory to bring fairness and transparency to the center of our democracy.

In the past, redistricting in Missouri was driven by backroom deals, secrecy, and partisan politics. Now, voters have put new rules in place that ensure fairness, transparency, and independence, so we can all have confidence that we’re getting a fair shake with new legislative maps. We have a system that works for the people.

But this week, three new gerrymandering plans were filed in the State Senate to overturn the will of 1,469,093 Missouri voters — and create new ways for political appointees to gerrymander districts.

So, here’s what’s happening: The Clean Missouri team is gearing up for the fight that will decide if fairness, transparency, and accountability remain the law of the land. Will you join our campaign? We need to organize ourselves today to be prepared to defend Clean Missouri when the legislature reconvenes in January.

Just like before, this will have to be a people-powered movement if we are going to defend the will of the people and keep our democracy on track.

Clean Missouri is about returning power back to the people. We can’t allow a few politicians and lobbyists to push through new gerrymandering plans. Add your name today and join us in our campaign to defend Amendment 1.

Onward, with more updates to come,

Sean Soendker Nicholson

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