Missouri redistricting vote opens door to an experiment, regardless of outcome

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State governments are unique political bodies that allow for experimentation in how rules and laws affect political outputs.  

As Justice Louis Brandies pointed out – states are laboratories of democracy. State governments have broad jurisdiction to “tweak” institutional rules and laws. Through this system of government, we can observe the aftermath of experimentation. Because experimentation may cause a variety of outcomes, it warrants careful consideration.    

Missourian’s are being presented with options for an experiment.  

Amendment 3 would essentially roll back what was passed two years ago during the 2018 midterm election. Known as  Clean Missouri, the measure stipulated that the redistricting process would be assigned to a state demographer who would be required to create competitive districts for state legislative seats. It also rolled other features onto the ballot that sought to redress ethics concerns over lobbyist gifting and campaign finance. 

The main concern in 2018 was over the concept of gerrymandering; that is, the drawing of district lines to create safe seats for incumbents. Essentially, gerrymandering is a way for politicians to choose voters and not the other way around – antithetical to the principles of self-governance in a representative system. 

Clean Missouri was argued to change this “undemocratic” feature. Amendment 3 essentially reverts back to the old system of drawing district lines through the method of a bipartisan redistricting commission. One significant change from the old system, though, is who is counted as part of a district’s population. 

There has been a lot of discussion from a variety of perspectives for and against Amendment 3.  What needs to be considered for those in either camp are potential benefits and consequences of their positions. 

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What should also be considered is what representation means in a broader sense.  

The selection systems for representatives that states have today can be traced back to the colonies and have their roots in feudal systems of governance. So, in the broader scheme of things, changes in the rules behind creating artificial boundaries may seem infinitesimal. But still, there are a variety of potential outcomes that should be carefully considered.   

If Missourians vote “no” on Amendment 3, the state is poised to have a unique redistricting system compared to anywhere in the country. It would adopt a measure of “partisan fairness” to the redrawing of district lines. 

However, as political scientist Debra Leiter points out, it is important to note that among measures of partisan gerrymandering, Missouri ranks low. In fact, bipartisan redistricting plans are known to reduce gerrymandering and create more compact districts. While there is little evidence of widespread partisan gerrymandering in Missouri, elections at the state legislative level suffer from a lack of political competition under the bipartisan redistricting plan. This is especially true for races further down the ballot from high profile top-of-the-ticket races. 

A quick calculation of competition for lower house seats in the Missouri General Assembly illustrates this point – over the past 10 years 94.8 percent of the seats up for election were not competitive at all. Additionally, 48 percent of the candidates running for House seats in Missouri are currently running unopposed. 

Essentially, in nearly half of these elections, primaries serve as a sort of coronation for political candidates.

If electoral competition does not exist, citizens cannot hold representatives accountable at the polls. A lack of competition means that citizens cannot really express or impose consequences on representatives they accept or do not accept.  

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Missouri, though, is not unique in its dearth of competitive seats for the state legislature. For many Americans, this is not an uncommon theme. Competition between political candidates, that is, close races for elective office, are more often a rarity than the norm.  

There are advantages to politically competitive districts that could incur if Missourians keep 2018’s Amendment 1. Speculatively, voter turnout could increase and there may be more deliberation on policy due to party mobilization efforts. It could also create the emergence of more moderate candidates and an ensuing moderation of policies that come out of Missouri’s General Assembly.  

However, it is also the case that these effects may be minimal. 

Considering all of this is important – after all this will be an experiment.  

If Amendment 3 does not pass, bold, new redistricting rules enter a black box with the possibility of a variety of unforeseen outcomes. 

Consider the regional sorting that occurs among partisan lines in the state. In order to create competitive districts, it is possible redistricting that includes Kansas City, St. Louis, suburban, and rural areas would need to be stretched across interests. The possibility is that it could dilute urban and rural interests, as well as representation for people of color. 

If Amendment 3 does not pass, there could be a significant purge of individuals that constituents preferred as their representatives, and the number of freshmen potentially coming into office may exacerbate the consequences term limits have already had on legislatures such as the Missouri General Assembly. Like term limits, a loss of institutional knowledge increases lobbyist influence on the legislative process.  

Further, like term limits it could create an environment where the legislature has less control over the budget and a reduction in legislative oversight functions. Given this knowledge, a “no” vote on Amendment 3 could result in a wrench in the policy-making process and weaken checks and balances between government institutions.

Finally, both camps present the possibility of a lose-lose situation for Missourians. 

While it is arguable that the creation of competitive districts may dilute votes for people of color and subsequently representation, provisions in Amendment 3 have a disconcerting caveat.  Amendment 3 does not require children and undocumented populations to be included in the apportionment process. If passed, racial minorities in Missouri could lose representation

Both sides present dilemmas in this experiment over representation.