Bipartisan commission moving toward plan for new Missouri House districts

Commissioners have three meetings set to met Dec. 23 deadline for filling draft proposal

By: - December 14, 2021 6:15 am

Jerry Hunter, chair of the House Independent Bipartisan Citizens Commission, looks over the agenda while Republican commissioners, from left, Jonathan Ratliff, Daniel Wilson, Pat Thomas, Alan Griffin and James Thomas III chat at Monday’s meeting. (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent)

A bipartisan commission drawing a map for 163 Missouri House districts that will be used in the coming decade is “more than 50 percent” in agreement, members said Monday as they worked toward a Dec. 23 deadline.

The 20-member House Independent Bipartisan Citizens Commission met for more than three hours Monday, but most of that time was spent with the 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans caucusing to determine how much of their maps were the same and how they differed.

Rural Missouri, where districts are geographically large but sparsely populated, is the main area of agreement. Democratic commissioners said at the end of the meeting that they needed to review more closely the Republican proposals for urban areas, where districts carve up densely packed populations.

Jason Ludwig, a Democratic commissioner who took the lead for his party, said he would tell the full commission before upcoming meetings whether the GOP offer on urban areas is acceptable.

“I think we can pat ourselves on the back a little bit because it looks like we’ve got agreement on more than 50 percent of the districts we have to look at,” Ludwig said.

After the meeting, Chairman Jerry Hunter said the commission wants to be the first House commission since 1991 to file a plan. If 14 of the 20 members cannot agree on a single map for the state, the job is turned over to a panel of appeals court judges chosen by the Missouri Supreme Court.

The commissioners, Hunter said, are “mindful of the constitutional responsibility to try to come to an agreement and not just take the view that we are going to ship it off to the court. I think the commissioners on both sides are very committed to getting a map we can agree to.”

The collegial relationship is far different from the commission’s first meeting in August, when it took many hours, and several votes, just to select Hunter as chairman.

The panel is working to make districts as nearly equal in population as possible, based on the results of the 2020 census. There was no discussion of trying to draw a map based on voting-age population, which came up several times during public hearings in the early fall.

Under the Missouri Constitution, the panel must file a preliminary map by Dec. 23. If it misses that deadline, it cannot proceed to the public hearings and vote on a final plan in January, said Gary Cain, redistricting project manager.

The same deadlines apply to the Senate Independent Bipartisan Redistricting Commission, which is also 20 members split evenly between the two major parties. Like the House commission, the Senate panel must have 14 members agree on a map for it to be used for future elections.

The Senate commission is scheduled to meet again next Monday.

If either commission misses the Dec. 23 deadline,  the district maps may not be ready before candidate filing opens in late February. If a judicial panel must complete the job, it won’t be appointed until after the final deadline in late January. 

While the commissions this year are similar to those used in the past, there are several new rules the two must follow. Lawmakers rewrote the constitutional provisions last year after an initiative petition from a group called Clean Missouri won approval from voters in 2018.

The Clean Missouri initiative called for a non-partisan state demographer to draw districts of nearly equal population. It kept the commissions, but their role was reduced. Instead of drafting the maps, they could only veto, by a 70 percent majority vote, the plan from the demographer.

The guiding policy of Clean Missouri was to make overall partisan fairness a priority, with a mathematical formula for testing it. The next priorities were drawing compact districts that did not cross political subdivision lines or break up communities of interest.

Opponents accused backers of Clean Missouri of creating a gerrymandered legislature where every district was 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans. 

Supporters countered that overall fairness, not absolute equality, was the goal.

Republicans currently hold 111 of the 163 seats in the Missouri House and Democrats hold 49. There are three vacancies. The GOP has 24 of the 34 seats in the Missouri Senate.

The legislative overhaul of the process made keeping counties and cities whole a top priority, with partisan fairness a lower priority. The maps proposed by Republicans for example, carve eight whole districts out of the city of St. Louis and five whole districts out of Boone County in central Missouri.

St. Louis is currently split into 11 districts, with three that cross over into St. Louis County. Boone County is currently apportioned into five districts, with two entirely within the county and three that take in portions of surrounding counties.

To meet the constitutional deadline, the House commission will meet again on Thursday, next Monday and again on Dec. 23. 

That timing, Matt Kessler of the redistricting office warned the commission, would mean a tight deadline for filing the preliminary plan with Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft’s office.

Just printing the plan could take many hours, he said, and the redistricting office is working to determine what is required in the preliminary plan and what could be left out.

The plan delivered by a judicial panel in 2011 for Missouri House districts was 1,200 pages long and included 168 large-format maps. While the redistricting office has some of the fastest large-format printers on the market, he said, it is still time-consuming.

“I can’t tell you how long it is going to take,” he said, “because we are not sure what it is going to take.”

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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.