Since 2018, Black and brown activists worked to solidify their coalitions to maintain Missouri’s never-used redistricting reforms in a multi-million dollar fight. They never stood a chance in the state’s districts that heavily favor Republicans.
Clean Missouri, a liberal campaign committee, poured over $7.5 million into defending their 2018 victory. In the end, Amendment 3 passed in November—undoing the coalitions’ groundwork in the redistricting fight.
The battle exposed a partisan tug-of-war over control of redistricting, which only occurs every 10 years. Even though redistricting reforms passed with 62% of the vote in 2018, the GOP-controlled legislature challenged the reforms in a new ballot initiative called Amendment 3, which reversed the midterm decision. Clean Missouri continued its coalition building with Black and brown activists at the beginning of the new election cycle.
“It came together from coalitions of Missourians identifying an issue, trying to find solutions, bring people in, and building an organic, people-powered campaign to get something done,” said Yurij Rudensky, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, a nonpartisan law and policy institute.
Nationally, money swarms to ballot initiatives as groups try to influence public opinion. Missouri is no different. Part of that process is building partisan cues through messaging, according to Sean Soendker Nicholson, campaign director for Clean Missouri.
Those for and against Amendment 3 collectively spent over $7.9 million trying to influence the November election.
Pro-Amendment 3 groups Fair Missouri and the Missouri Farm Bureau Fund for Real Representation collectively spent over $310,000.
Both sides received big-dollar donations and utilized grassroots funding, alike. Clean Missouri received several out-of-state contributions. Outside spending groups such as North Fund and Stand Up America gave millions collectively. Strategic Victory Fund, a group that does not disclose its donors, contributed $500,000 to Clean Missouri. Groups that do not disclose its donors are commonly referred to as “dark money.”
Supporters of Amendment 3 criticized Clean Missouri for its out-of-state and dark money contributions.
“Some of that conversation was trying to create partisan cues that distract from what was really going on in their proposal,” Nicholson said.
Republicans Benefit Under Current District Map in State Elections
One of Clean Missouri’s main reforms tasked a nonpartisan demographer with drawing districts to stop map-drawers from “packing and cracking” legislative districts that diminish voting power among the electorate. Packing and cracking legislative districts is often referred to as partisan gerrymandering, where map drawers create unfair advantages for one political party.
“Redistricting really will be in the hands of loyal partisans, people who are going to have political agendas and not necessarily looking out for what makes the most sense for effective representation for Missouri’s various communities,” Rudensky said.
Under the state’s current map, Democrats lose more votes than the GOP. Historically, that puts Missouri into the worst 5% of all district plans, said Harvard law professor Nick Stephanopoulos, who was part of the team that created the efficiency gap formula.
The efficiency gap formula captures the partisan advantages in a gerrymandered map in a single number. The formula calculates the difference between the parties’ wasted votes in an election, respectively, and divides the difference between the total number of votes cast.
Wasted votes refer to the votes that are made mathematically insignificant in electing candidates on the ballot through gerrymandering.
“It’s a nice way to aggregate all the cracking and packing of a plan into just a single figure that tells you who is benefitting and who is harmed by this cracking and packing,” Stephanopoulos said.
Since 1980, the efficiency gap has trended to benefit Republicans in the state legislature.
Republicans enjoy a 14-point advantage in the Missouri Senate and an eight-point advantage in the Missouri House, according to the efficiency gap formula.
“So that tells me that Missouri’s current redistricting maps dramatically benefit Republicans,” Stephanopoulos said. “Republicans are winning a lot more seats than they should, given the views of the voters of Missouri.”
Not only does gerrymandering waste votes, but it also discourages competitiveness in state elections. This makes it harder for new candidates to challenge incumbents and puts intense pressure on primary elections, Rudensky said.
In 2014, nearly 60% of Missouri Senate seats went uncontested and 100% of incumbents retained their seats.
“The lack of political competition, particularly at the general election phase, ultimately produces a very dysfunctional form of politics and that’s the real threat,” Rudensky said.
The Fight is Far From Over
While Missourians reversed the 2018 redistricting reforms, questions remain. The bipartisan commission has the option to not include noncitizens and residents under 18.
If the commission goes through with that change in population count, the Brennan Center for Justice warns that a swarm of lawsuits could be brought against the state citing violations to the state constitution, federal constitution and the Voting Rights Act.
Clean Missouri is prepared to protect the Supreme Court precedent of one person, one vote.
“If there’s an attempt to make Missouri the first state in America to not count everyone in its maps, there’d be a very aggressive response,” Nicholson said.
Despite the reversal, redistricting might end up out of the commission’s hands anyway. If the commission can’t agree on a final plan, the map will be given to a group of judges who sit on the Appellate Apportionment Commission in the Missouri Court of Appeals. This happened 10 years ago during the last redistricting process.
Rudensky encourages people to keep their coalitions alive and actively communicate with the commissions.
“The thing that gives me optimism is the fact that people are so much more civically engaged now than they were in 2011,” Rudensky. “The important thing is just to channel that enthusiasm and keep the momentum going and make sure that the redistricting process is one where the public makes its voice and feelings and preferences known.”
Although Amendment 3 ultimately passed in November, Black and brown activists solidified a strong coalition this election cycle despite challenges unique to mid-Missouri. As issues such as gerrymandering and police brutality persist, these activists will continue to engage politically and advocate for change.