Government & Politics

Only citizens could be counted to draw legislative districts, per Missouri House bill

Democrats are worried that adding a citizenship question will dampen participation in the census by illegal immigrants, reducing the total population count in metropolitan areas where illegal immigrants are largely concentrated.
Democrats are worried that adding a citizenship question will dampen participation in the census by illegal immigrants, reducing the total population count in metropolitan areas where illegal immigrants are largely concentrated. TNS

The heated national debate over how to treat non-citizens in the 2020 census has made its way to Missouri and could affect the way the state redraws its legislative districts.

A constitutional amendment working its way through the Missouri General Assembly would require that only U.S. citizens be counted when the state redraws its legislative districts, which should be roughly uniform in population size.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Dean Plocher, R-St. Louis, passed the House 98-34 and awaits action in the Senate.

“If you're a U.S. citizen right now the way it stands, your vote could be diluted if you have a disproportionate number, i.e. a greater number in your district than others that are not citizens of the United States,” Plocher said during floor debate last week.

Critics called the amendment "racist" and worry that a provision allowing the state to defund the redistricting process would undermine a progressive ballot initiative campaign called Clean Missouri. The initiative would impose ethics reforms, like a cap on lobbyist gifts given to legislators, and require that the state's legislative districts be redrawn to be competitive.

Plocher argues that his provision protects the "one person, one vote" doctrine that says political districts should be roughly equal in size and says those votes are currently diluted with the inclusion of non-citizens in reapportionment.

President Donald Trump's administration plans to ask people whether they're citizens during the 2020 census. The announcement set off an uproar over worries that immigrants wouldn't respond to the census, threatening census officials' ability to get an accurate population count and deflating the number of people counted in communities with large immigrant populations.

More than 20 cities and states sued the Trump administration over the decision, according to the Associated Press.

If the Trump administration doesn't ask census respondents whether they're citizens, Plocher's amendment would require that the best estimate provided by the U.S. Census Bureau be used.

Critics say drawing districts based on the number of citizens rather than the total number of people would threaten residents' right to equal representation. Rep. Tracey McCreery, D-St. Louis, called it a "blatant attempt to gerrymander districts."

McCreery said immigrants who are here legally and paying taxes should be counted like their neighbors who are citizens.

"It echoed a bit of a racist past in our country where people were only counted as like three-fifths of a person, where at one point women weren't even counted," McCreery said. "I'm very frustrated with this idea that you can pick and choose how you count people in order to rig an election."

Plocher pushed back against the notion his amendment had to do with race during floor debate, saying he found the accusation "offensive."

"In the heat of battle with things, people do kind of jump guns," Plocher said in an interview. "I just wanted to express that I fervently am opposed to that type of activity and do not stand for any racist actions whatsoever."

The U.S. Supreme Court last year ruled that states can count the entire population, not just those who would be allowed to vote, according to the Associated Press.

Opponents of Plocher's amendment also took issue with what they deemed an attempt to undermine part of the Clean Missouri initiative, which would require that districts be drawn to make races more competitive.

A provision in Plocher's amendment would revert the reapportionment process back to its current form if the General Assembly fails to appropriate funds for the process.

“They could decide to defund the demographer and defund the whole redistricting process, thereby setting up a process that protects incumbents," said Sean Soendker Nicholson, campaign manager for Clean Missouri.

Clean Missouri called Plocher's amendment a "sham" in a statement released last week.

Plocher disputed that notion. He said Clean Missouri's changes focuses on the way the districts are drawn based on measures like competitiveness, not the total population. He said Clean Missouri would stand on its own.

"When I thought about this, this is a standalone measure that I think it's important to be a U.S. citizen," Plocher said.

Clean Missouri would ban lobbyist gifts over $5, require a two-year cooling-off period for legislators becoming lobbyists, open legislative records and require that districts be drawn to be competitive. The initiative would require a nonpartisan expert to draw the maps, which would be reviewed by a citizen commission.

Under Clean Missouri, districts would have to be drawn to ensure partisan fairness and competitiveness. Districts would still need to be contiguous and preference would be given to compactly drawn districts.

Critics have labeled it gerrymandering.

Volunteers turned in nearly 347,000 signatures earlier this month to get the Clean Missouri proposals on the 2018 general election ballot. If Secretary of State John Ashcroft's office determines that the signatures are valid, Clean Missouri will be placed on the ballot.

Plocher said he supports a lobbyist gift ban and does not accept gifts from lobbyists. His bill originally included provisions similar to those included in Clean Missouri, like a ban on lobbyist gifts, a cap on campaign contributions and a ban on lobbying for two years after a legislators leaves the General Assembly. He said those provisions were dropped because Clean Missouri had already turned in the signatures to get on the fall ballot.

Rep. Greg Razer, D-Kansas City, criticized the perceived attempt to undermine Clean Missouri.

"The fact that it was hidden in a bill that they knew was going to get our blood pressure up because of the actual or perceived racism that was in it — those are the kind of games that happen at the end of session that are infuriating," Razer said.

Plocher's bill needs to pass by a two-thirds vote in the Senate and be approved by voters to become part of the Constitution.