New Ballot Initiative Promises to Minimize Republican and Democratic Gerrymanders in Missouri

Gerrymandered district at the U.S. Supreme Court

Clean Missouri has proposed a new ballot initiative that promises to make Missouri elections fairer and more transparent. This plan will minimize the gerrymanders by either party by having a nonpartisan state demographer draw the redistricting map. A bipartisan citizen’s commission, composed of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats from around the state, may make minor changes to the map if seven-tenths of the commissioners approve. 

Currently, a bipartisan commission selected by the Governor and the majority and minority party leaders in the Missouri legislature draw Missouri’s House of Representatives maps. State Senate maps are also drawn by a bipartisan commission selected by the state committee for the two largest parties and the Governor. While the bipartisan nature of these commissions are appealing, the members of the commissions tend to have extreme conflicts of interest as they are often lobbyists and political consultants. 

Clean Missouri’s ballot initiative prevents this sort of malfeasance by mandating that the nonpartisan demographer not have served in a partisan elected position for four years prior to appointment. The proposal also excludes the nonpartisan demographer from holding office as a member of the general assembly for four years thereafter. 

According to Wendy Underhill, a redistricting expert with the non-partisan National Conference of State Legislatures, “There has been more interest this year than in the last few years, and perhaps ever, on changing how redistricting is conducted. Some reformers—inside legislatures and outside—are seeking to move to commissions, and specifically commissions that are at arm’s length from politics, if that is possible. Most reform proposals, like the one in Missouri, include a change in the criteria used for drawing maps as well. This year, for instance, legislators in Colorado and Ohio have sent measures to the voters with overwhelming bipartisan support to change the methodology to increase the level of bipartisanship in mapdrawing, and citizens in Utah and Michigan gathered signatures to put citizens initiatives on November’s statewide ballots as well.” 

Missouri’s current maps were drawn in 2012 and exhibit signs of gerrymandering. In the 2016 state house elections, Republicans in Missouri received 59% of the vote and yet were able to control 72% of the seats in the Missouri House. This indicates that Republicans were able to turn their votes into seats more efficiently than Democrats, which is a telltale sign of rampant gerrymandering and a lack of partisan fairness. 

Political scientists quantify the difference in each party’s ability to turn votes into seats by using a measure called the efficiency gap. Minority parties in states with high efficiency gaps often won’t be able to gain a majority of the seats in future elections, even if they receive a majority of votes in future elections. 

Democratic and Republican incumbents are similarly guilty of manipulating the redistricting process to their benefit by drawing districts to ensure that they get reelected, with minimal concern for fairness criteria such as contiguity, compactness, preservation of communities of interest, and respect for political subdivisions. In fact, scholars have drawn maps of Missouri with lower efficiency gaps than the current map and that meet more of the fairness criteria than the current map. 

A lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of this initiative is pending. However, it is premised on ideas that are demonstrably false. In the lawsuit, the Plaintiff assumes that the state demographer “will be forced either to draw noncontiguous districts (say, mixing a district of rural Missouri in with a slice of St. Louis or Kansas City) or conical districts that link slivers of traditional urban communities with swaths of rural Missouri.” 

Fair maps that maintain communities of interest and adhere to other fairness criteria have already been drawn for Missouri. Maps like these have not yet been implemented because the people currently in charge of drawing maps have other priorities, such as keeping their seat and winning more seats for their party by any means, including diluting the votes of the opposing party. 

This mentality is incredibly dangerous. Due to recent technological advancements and the wealth of personal information available to the public, partisan map drawers are able to gerrymander a map with surgical precision, carefully cracking and packing a map so that their party of choice will have more seats than votes. 

The proponents of the Clean Missouri ballot initiative believe that voters should choose politicians, not the other way around. If enacted, the initiative will institute practical methods for ensuring that each vote matters as much as the next.

Ruth litigates a wide variety of redistricting cases, with a particular focus on ending partisan gerrymandering and promoting minority representation.
Charquia is a Fellow at CLC with the Voting Rights Institute.