This year’s process to redraw Missouri’s legislative districts represents the danger of handing that responsibility to partisan politicians.
Every 10 years following the national census, district lines must be redrawn to meet the U.S. constitutional requirement for near equal distribution of population among the districts. The 2018 Clean Missouri ballot issue gave the job of drafting an initial map for state legislative districts to a “state demographer” selected by the state auditor and Senate party leaders.
But the legislature gutted that idea, returning the job to party-selected commissions for the House and Senate districts. It led to a gridlock between Republican and Democratic members of the Senate redistricting commission, putting the issue into the hands of a judicial panel to draw the new districts.
Far worse was Missouri’s legislative efforts to draw the state’s eight congressional districts. Lawmakers failed to get a congressional map approved before the deadline to file for office. The issue was relatively simple in the Missouri House, which passed slightly redrawn districts that likely would maintain the six-two Republican majority of the state’s congressional delegation.
But in the Senate, things went off the rails.
A small group of Senate Republican conservatives filibustered for a map that likely would oust Kansas City area Democratic Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, giving Republicans an additional congressional seat. Lacking support from their Republican colleagues, the conservative filibusters blocked almost any Senate action on any bill, day after day, week after week — at times just reading from a book.
Their weeks of futile filibusters, even on routine motions to approve the previous day’s journal, stalled action on a large number of major bills awaiting action in the session’s final weeks. Compounding the problem was a near total absence of Senate Republican cohesion that crippled their leaders from exercising control for much of the session.
Eventually, a Senate compromise approved a map that maintained the KC Democratic district, but added more Republican voters to the district of St. Louis County Republican Rep. Ann Wagner to ensure her reelection.
But to get those additional Republican voters, Wagner’s 2nd Congressional district was drawn to look like the tail of a dog dangling from St. Louis County deep into rural Republican southeast Missouri.
Except for political gain, it’s hard to see a “community of interest” in such a dog-tail district.
What’s the community of interest between a largely rural agriculture area from metro area where many wear dress clothes and spend a significant time commuting to work?
One of the most eloquent descriptions of that question came from a rural Iron County House member whose county would be included in the dog tail district.
“What I’m talking about is communities of the same interest…we have farmers and ranchers and hunters and fishermen and do many outdoor activities like that versus what would be carried on in the urban areas,” said Rep. Mike McGirl, R-Potosi.
Decades ago, that geographic difference McGirl described had been far more important for many legislators than party affiliation. The cultures and values of rural Missouri versus those of metro areas was a dominate factor.
But over the years, Missouri Republicans have evolved into such ideological and partisan lock-step that local community interest seems less significant. A state government researcher once suggested it should be easy to write a computer program to draw districts based on population, race, partisan balance and compactness.
But I’m not sure there is a way to reduce to a computer program so many of the factors that distinguish rural, suburban and urban areas of our state. Even in Missouri’s rural areas, the Civil War left a legacy of regional differences.
In 1966, Political Scientist Daniel Elazar described different political cultures that arose because of historical migration of groups with different religious, moral and cultural values.
When I began covering Missouri’s statehouse, his book helped me better understand the cross-party voting patterns I observed between metro-area and rural legislators. Maybe legislators should be required to read Elazar’s book before taking office.
Or, maybe, the entire redistricting process should be handed to the courts.
(Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of Missouri Digital News and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes).
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