Redistricting commissions near end of public hearings on Missouri House, Senate maps

Bipartisan panels have until late January to complete their work. If they fail, judges will draw 197 districts for the next decade

By: - November 4, 2021 5:55 am
Exterior Missouri State Capitol building

Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City. (Photo by ©Walter Bibikow)

The two redistricting commissions created to design new district maps for the General Assembly are moving into their work phase.

Each has held the constitutionally mandated three public hearings on how the maps should look for the 163-member Missouri House and the 34-member Missouri Senate. They have heard requests to protect incumbents, suggestions on where to start in counties with more than one district and pleas to align legislative and school district boundaries.

The commission responsible for drawing House maps has three more public hearings scheduled, with the next set for 10 a.m. Thursday in the Jefferson Building state offices in Jefferson City. Additional hearings will be held Monday in Cape Girardeau and Nov. 10 in Kirksville

The Senate commission will also meet Thursday but for a work session where the only substantive item on the agenda is a schedule for the next meeting. 

This story was a collaboration between The Missouri Independent and Missouri School of Journalism reporters Jonathan Jain, MJ Montgomery, Lianna Johnson and Jackson Valenti.

While this year’s process resembles the one used since 1966 for the House and Senate maps – commission members are nominated by political party committees, chosen by the governor and given six months to finish – there are new twists.

The most obvious difference is that the commissions are bigger, with 20 members each, two from each of the state’s eight Congressional Districts and four at-large members. Previously, the House commission had no at-large members and the Senate commission had 10 chosen from anywhere in the state.

The changes began with passage of the Clean Missouri proposal as Amendment 1 in 2018. That measure made partisan fairness a key element of future maps. A nonpartisan state demographer, chosen by a process that used the state auditor to screen candidates and legislative leaders to make a final selection, was given the duty to draw the maps.

The Clean Missouri proposal retained commissions, but their power was limited to rejecting the proposed map if 70% of the members voted against it. It also eliminated a requirement for Senate district maps that no county could be split among two or more districts unless it had enough population for one whole district.

The remainder after one or more full districts was created could be attached to other whole counties.

“Sometimes counties make a ton of sense as a community of interest,” said Sean Nicholson, who directed the Clean Missouri campaign and is now monitoring the commissions as the director of Fair Maps Missouri. “Sometimes they only make sense on a population basis. There are tons of communities of interest that straddle county lines.”

Immediately after the Clean Missouri proposal passed, Gov. Mike Parson and other Republicans targeted it for repeal or revision. The current maps have produced GOP majorities of 70% in the General Assembly despite Republicans statewide winning an average of just 57%of the vote in statewide contests.

The result was Amendment 3, passed by voters last year. It eliminated the state demographer post, expanded the commissions and restored the requirement that Senate districts include whole counties except where the population exceeds the number required for one whole district.

It added a similar mandate to the rules governing House maps. Counties with enough people for one or more districts would have whole districts drawn within their boundaries, with the remainder attached to an adjacent county. 

Counties with fewer people than needed for a district are to remain whole, unless a split is necessary to equalize districts and then only one split is allowed.

If total population is the basis of the maps, ideal House districts will have 37,760 people and Senate districts will have 181,027 people. There is an allowance for districts to vary by as much as 1%. If the districts align with political subdivision boundaries, such as city limits or county lines, the variation can be as much as 3%.

One example of where that change will have a big impact is Boone County.

With a population of 183,610, Boone County is large enough to make just under five state House districts and one state Senate district. Boone is currently split among five House districts, with three crossing county lines and two that include portions of four counties. 

A map that meets the new requirements will put at least four of Boone County’s House districts entirely within the county. The county’s largest city, Columbia, has enough people for three districts entirely within its boundaries.

While he isn’t happy with Amendment 3 overall, forcing the commissioners to stay within county lines means districts won’t snake through several counties to get a constituency for a safe seat, Nicholson said.

“I think it actually clarifies and simplifies some choices and clarifies where there will be differences of opinions on where to go,” Nicholson said.

It will take a majority of 14 in each commission to approve a map for use in the 2022 elections. The commissions have until late January to produce the maps. If they are unable to agree, a panel of appellate court judges will draw the maps.

The job has been turned over to judges more often in recent decades than not. The last time a House commission produced a map was 1991. 

The most convoluted process that resulted in a map came after the 2010 census, when it took a second commission, appointed after the first commission and a judicial panel failed, to design maps for the state Senate. That map, approved in 2012, was the first Senate map produced by a commission since 1971.

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Rudi Keller
Rudi Keller

Rudi Keller covers the state budget and the legislature. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he spent 22 of his 32 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics for the Columbia Daily Tribune, where he won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.