Guest Commentary

Clean Missouri could undo years of minority progress in Jefferson City

Missouri Influencers panelist Jane Dueker
Missouri Influencers panelist Jane Dueker

On Nov. 6, Missourians will vote on Amendment 1, marketed to voters as Clean Missouri. Striving to live up to its name, its provisions include a panoply of ethics reform: a lobbyist gift ban, a slight reduction in 2016’s campaign finance limit reforms, subjecting the General Assembly to the Sunshine Law and prohibiting fundraising activities on state property — a menu of populist measures, chosen for their polling popularity.

These proposals could be implemented as legislation. There is no need to resort to the drastic measure of amending our state’s constitution to enact these routine ethics reforms — unless, of course, logrolling these ethics sweeteners is the proverbial Trojan horse masking the true aim of this ballot question: overhauling redistricting, which requires a constitutional amendment.

I am a lifelong Democrat and have spent most of my adult life in Missouri policy and politics. I am all for a structural change that would make our elections more competitive and hopefully net more Democratic seats.

And at first blush, Amendment 1’s novel redistricting concept was attractive. But after the August primary, I started analyzing this measure. It was then that I saw a map that a third-party nonpartisan demographer generated, applying factors that Clean Missouri would require — and the alarm bell starting ringing: Missouri would become the only state in the union to approach redistricting in this fashion.

This is nothing more than an experiment. Not only is there is no evidence whatsoever that Amendment 1 would net more Democratic seats, but I have come to believe that it would reduce the minority and progressive representation that it has taken decades to develop.

Current statutes require the non-legislative, bipartisan redistricting commission to first ensure that the population of each district be equal “as nearly as possible,” contiguous and compact. For Senate districts, there is the additional requirement that no county lines shall be crossed (except under certain rare circumstances).

Amendment 1 would require an unelected, nonpartisan demographer to prepare legislative districting plans. While there is concern whether this official would have sufficient practical experience to understand the real-life effects of the work, that pales in comparison to the questions raised by the factors the demographer would be required to apply to draw the districts.

The first step would be for the demographer to ensure the district populations be “as nearly equal as practicable.” That is where the similarity to the current process ends. Amendment 1’s objectives would be to achieve both “partisan fairness” and “competitiveness” for the parties. In layman’s terms, that means either a Democrat or a Republican could win any given seat — meaning it would explicitly allow the drawing of districts in thin long strips over numerous boundaries to prioritize partisan fairness and competitiveness over all other factors.

This “fairness” and “competitiveness” bring tremendous risk of diluting minority and progressive votes and representation, a large portion of which is concentrated in urban and suburban areas. Look at current House seats from St. Louis — predominately Democratic, minority and progressive. Because of the sheer number of districts needed to pull in a significant number of Republican voters to be “competitive,” the only way to achieve the mandated result is to draw long strip districts that reach into predominately Republican areas outside the city itself.

It goes without saying that districts must be drawn to comply with the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, which Clean Missouri proponents claim would prevent application of the “competitiveness” factor to decrease existing minority seats. But as the current conservative Supreme Court continues to water down Voting Rights Act protections, it will also further restrict Missouri’s ability to preserve minority voting and representation rights. Amendment 1 would only escalate the erosion.

Jane Dueker is a lawyer, radio host and member of The Star's Missouri Influencers panel.