While elaborate election tampering scandals take up all the current political headlines, a less glamorous, age-old issue may finally (hopefully) be settled: gerrymandering. Back in November, 2018, Missouri put legislative redistricting front and center in Amendment 1 – more commonly known as the “Clean Missouri“ proposition. Clean Missouri is a wide-ranging amendment to Missouri’s constitution which aims to take the focus out of partisanship and make lawmakers more responsive to the people of the community they are representing, instead of special interest groups or lobbyists. Proponents of the amendment (mostly the left) say that this amendment is a huge step in the right direction to “clean up” politicians act as far as ethics. The opposition (mostly the right) says that the amendment is not about improving ethics, but rather, giving Democrats a leg up in the state legislative redistricting process. There are many subjects of debate when it comes to this amendment, but the most hotly debated of them all is the anti-gerrymandering part of the proposition.
When it comes to anything law-related, there are some serious advantages to being the one to draft a document involving other parties. Even if an agreement is completely fair on its face, a minute detail could skew the agreement in the drafting party’s favor. This is essentially where Republicans take issue with the Clean Missouri amendment. It was predominantly Democrats who spearheaded the drafting of this amendment and Republicans are worried it will force them to be unfavorably treated, resulting in their party losing a lot of control. Immediately after the amendment was passed, before a single redistricting line was drawn, Republican leaders expressed their disapproval with the new redistricting system. Now, Republican supermajorities in the state House and Senate are in the process of drafting an amendment of their own to alter or undo Clean Missouri, which we may see on the state-wide ballot later this year or in 2020. However, this push-back now appears to be dead. The proposal failed to advance to the Senate floor, but there are still other avenues for it to be revived.
So, what was the real issue with the way legislative redistricting previously worked in Missouri? Before Clean Missouri, a commission comprised of half Democrats and half Republicans would draw the redistricting lines. If they could not agree, judges appointed by the Missouri Supreme Court would draw the final lines. Not shockingly, a commission made up of half Democrats and half Republicans often results in deadlock so the responsibility often falls upon the judges.
Judges are our society’s go-to impartial decision-maker when it comes to the law, however, they may prove to be a lot more impressionable than usual under these circumstances. A judge’s familiar domain is interpreting the laws of the land and applying them to specific situations. Judges study their whole lives in order to know the law well enough to perform this job, they rarely if ever need to ask for outside advice in order to make these decisions. It is the judge’s own expertise and understanding of the application of law which makes them so impartial. Legislative redistricting is not a judge’s expertise. Judges were not required to explain the reasoning behind their redistricting decisions and Missouri law does not specifically prohibit partisan gerrymandering. The only real legal guidance judges had in this process was that the districts needed to be contiguous, compact, and nearly equal population. That is not to say that judges did not still try their best to be impartial, judges are just generally accustomed to staying out of politics. Therefore, it is unlikely they make a redistricting decision entirely themselves without some help from, you guessed it, politicians.
The Supreme Court of the United States itself decided to stay out of this political question in Rucho v. Common Cause, 139 S. Ct. 2484 (2019). In this case, the Court ruled that gerrymandering is the legislature’s responsibility to resolve – not the judiciary’s. Chief Justice Robers wrote for the majority opinion. “Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution, and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions.” Therefore, by ruling that the issue of partisan redistricting is not reviewable by the federal court, the Court is metaphorically shooing away the politicians’ bickering and telling them to figure it out because it is within their own political realm. They created the problem, now they have to fix it. However, this decision did not rule that state courts were unable to review the issue, so policing redistricting efforts may now be left to the legislature and individual states.
So what is Missouri’s new legislative redistricting plan and will it work? Clean Missouri gets rid of the old method which left legislative redistricting up to judges and a commission of politicians, and instead deviates the responsibility to an independent demographer. Under this new amendment, the demographer would be appointed to draw maps that emphasize, among other things, competitiveness and partisan fairness. Certain studies have suggested that nonpartisan drawn maps tend to be more symmetrical on average after redistricting than any other method brought to the table. In other words, they tended to treat both parties similarly, suggesting that independent districting has successfully neutralized partisan biased, as intended. However, these analyses are merely preliminary; the real test will be to see how independent redistricting works in real life now that Clean Missouri has passed – given the anticipated Republican amendment in rebuttal does not throw it completely off its tracks. However, do not let the Republican’s disapproval mislead you. Currently, Republicans are largely benefitting from partisan redistricting, but Democrats have also reaped the benefits of the same. Gerrymandering is not a partisan issue, but rather a structural issue of our political system which can tend to unfairly benefit a certain party.
Hancock, Jason. Clean Missouri’s Redistricting Plan a Good Fix or Power Grab? | The Kansas City Star. https://www.kansascity.com/news/politics-government/influencers/article219482715.html. Accessed 10 July 2019.
Keena, Alex, et al. “Analysis | Here’s How to Fix Partisan Gerrymandering, Now That the Supreme Court Kicked It Back to the States.” Washington Post, 2 July 2019. www.washingtonpost.com, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/07/02/heres-how-fix-partisan-gerrymandering-now-that-supreme-court-kicked-it-back-states/.
Leonhardt, David. “Opinion | An Insult to Missouri.” The New York Times, 27 Nov. 2018. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/27/opinion/missouri-republicans-gerrymandering.html.
Lieb, David. Both Parties Have Used Gerrymandering to Extend Power. Can a Missouri Experiment Make a Difference? | Political Fix | Stltoday.Com. https://www.stltoday.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/both-parties-have-used-gerrymandering-to-extend-power-can-a/article_f3301ad9-591c-590f-bf08-71c798317409.html. Accessed 10 July 2019.
Myers, Keith. “Missouri GOP, Fighting Redistricting Changes, Courts Unlikely Ally: Black Democrats.” Kansascity, https://www.kansascity.com/news/politics-government/article228882609.html. Accessed 10 July 2019.
Oide, Thomas. “Redistricting Explained: A Look at the ‘Clean Missouri’ Amendment.” Columbia Missourian, https://www.columbiamissourian.com/news/elections/redistricting-explained-a-look-at-the-clean-missouri-amendment/article_afab20ca-d798-11e8-8607-4322007efb62.html. Accessed 11 July 2019.
Rosenbaum, Jason. “Missouri Voters Backed An Anti-Gerrymandering Measure; Lawmakers Want To Undo It.” NPR.Org, https://www.npr.org/2019/01/08/682979916/missouri-voters-backed-an-anti-gerrymandering-measure-lawmakers-want-to-undo-it. Accessed 10 July 2019.
Supreme Court Redistricting Ruling Is Mixed Bag For Missouri Critics Of Gerrymandering. https://news.stlpublicradio.org/post/supreme-court-redistricting-ruling-mixed-bag-missouri-critics-gerrymandering. Accessed 10 July 2019.
Totenburg, Nina, et al. “Supreme Court Rules Partisan Gerrymandering Is Beyond The Reach Of Federal Courts.” NPR.Org, https://www.npr.org/2019/06/27/731847977/supreme-court-rules-partisan-gerrymandering-is-beyond-the-reach-of-federal-court. Accessed 11 July 2019.
Weinberg, David Reynolds, Thomas Oide and Tessa. “AMENDMENT 1: Voters Strongly Support Clean Missouri Redistricting Plan, Ethics Reform.” Columbia Missourian, https://www.columbiamissourian.com/news/elections/amendment-voters-strongly-support-clean-missouri-redistricting-plan-ethics-reform/article_6d2a9728-e155-11e8-b58e-43f1d7945f4e.html.