Missouri voters used to be in the news because we were the bellwether state for presidential elections. For 100 years with one exception Missouri voted for the winner – until 2008.
Now we are in the news because we are a trending red state that votes for progressive ballot initiatives. Republicans have super majorities in both houses of the state legislature, control all but one statewide office, including both Senate seats, and six of eight congressional seats. Yet in 2018 voters defeated right-to-work, approved a state minimum wage, approved medical marijuana and passed the “Clean Missouri” amendment, strengthening ethics laws and changing the way state legislative districts are drawn.
What’s going on? The best explanation I’ve heard is that Missourians can be pretty independent when issues are de-coupled from partisanship, which is what happens when we vote on amendments or propositions.
This doesn’t mean the parties aren’t interested in the results of ballot initiatives. Consider the so-called anti-gerrymandering provision in the Clean Missouri amendment. Governor Parson and Republicans in the legislature are talking seriously about trying to undo it, because they believe it will hurt the party.
Concerns about this reform are reasonable, but partisanship has nothing to do with it. Legislative districts that are constitutionally-compliant must be equal in population, they must be compact, they must be contiguous – you must be able to go from one end of the district to the other without leaving it – and they cannot be drawn to discriminate against minority voters. The Supreme Court has said, as recently as last summer, that drawing district lines to discriminate against the voters of one or the other political party, if that’s all it does, is not unconstitutional.
The Clean Missouri amendment basically ignores the Supreme Court and requires that the newly-created independent commission draw districts with the fewest so-called “wasted votes.” In rural Missouri most districts are Republican, but maybe 60 percent to 40 percent. In St. Louis and Kansas City most districts are Democratic, but often 80-20 or even 90-10. In these districts the big surplus of Democratic votes is considered “wasted.” The Supreme Court explicitly rejected a formula that proposed to quantify this, yet the new commission is expected to create and implement such a thing.
If the commission is faithful to its charge it will end up drawing districts that make a dog’s hind leg look straight. There will be dozens of strange-looking spokes snaking in every direction from St. Louis and Kansas City in order to capture Republican votes and “reduce waste.” It will also put in jeopardy a number of currently-safe minority districts.
I think the new commission should forget about “wasted votes” and draw the districts like they do in Iowa – following established political boundaries such as county lines and city limits and let the chips fall where they may. Once they’re done then Americans can tackle the biggest gerrymander of them all. Did you know that, because the Constitution guarantees each state two Senators, the 26 smallest states, with 18 percent of the U.S. population, are a majority in the Senate?
Now that’s a gerrymander.
Terry Smith is a political science professor at Columbia College and a regular commentator on KBIA's Talking Politics.