Commission sets Monday public hearing for competing Missouri House district maps

Senate redistricting commission failed to meet deadline, leaving upper chamber map in hands of judges

By: - December 31, 2021 6:00 am

The Missouri House chamber (photo courtesy of Tim Bommel/Missouri House Communications).

For the state commission drawing new Missouri House districts, the work began in acrimony but seems likely to end in harmony. For the commission in charge of new Senate maps, the opposite is true.

When the House Independent Bipartisan Citizens Commission met for the first time in August, the 20 members spent hours arguing, locked in a partisan tie over who would chair their meetings. 

The Senate Independent Bipartisan Citizens Commission, also with 20 members, met on the same day and quickly elected a chair, set a date for future meetings and adjourned to a training session.

But when the Dec. 23 deadline came to send tentative maps to the Secretary of State’s office, it was the House commission that filed a plan – albeit with two maps showing where they could not agree on 51 of 163 districts. And at 10 a.m. Monday in Jefferson City, the House commission will hold a public hearing as members work towards a Jan. 23 deadline to reconcile their differences.

Chairman Jerry Hunter, a Republican, said in an interview that he worked to create a relationship with vice-chair Keena Smith, a Democrat, to get the work finished. 

“It was very important to me and I tried as the chair to send a message to the Democratic commissioners that we were going to be fair and balanced in chiring the commission, and with the vice chair Keena Smith, we worked well together,” he said. “I tried to reach out to her to make sure that there was no unnecessary friction.”

But the Senate commission, which also met Dec. 23 in a final attempt to reach an agreement, voted against filing two maps for the 34 Senate districts and closed the record on its work after six hours. Some members argued that filing two maps was a way to buy time to reach an agreement.

Chairman Marc Ellinger disagreed.

If we buy 30 more days, we are going to be sitting here on Jan. 23, which is the last day of the cycle, having the same debate,” he told fellow commissioners.

For candidates hoping to run in those districts, the result is a good news, bad news scenario. When filing opens Feb. 22, districts would be set for the Missouri House. But because drawing the Senate map will be turned over to a panel of appeals court judges, the deadline for a plan will be almost a month after filing ends on March 29.

To take effect, the final House plan must be approved by 14 of the commission’s 20 members. 

House plan

Of the 163 Missouri House districts, the two maps filed with the Secretary of State’s office agree on 112. The differences are in heavily populated areas in Boone, Greene and Jackson counties and part of St. Louis County.

Because rural voting patterns heavily favor Republicans at this time, the population centers are where Democrats think they can draw more competitive districts with a chance to change the balance of power. Currently, Democrats hold fewer than one-third of the House seats. 

“Some of these districts, particularly some of the districts where we have not reached agreement, will be pretty close from a partisan standpoint,” Hunter said. “The deciding factors in some of these districts will come down to the candidates themselves.”

There are new factors in the redistricting process this year that have not been a part of past plans. Republicans, upset with the plan from a group called Clean Missouri that passed as an initiative petition in 2018, won voter approval for a revised process in the 2020 election.

The Clean Missouri proposal made partisan balance in the districts a top priority and gave the job of drawing districts to a nonpartisan state demographer. The revision gave the job back to a commission, enlarged from past commissions, and made following existing city and county lines a top priority.

Under the agreed-on portions, the city of St. Louis will have eight districts wholly contained within its borders, instead of 11 with three that cross into St. Louis County. Under both plans, Boone County will have five districts entirely within its borders, but how they are drawn is the issue.

Smaller counties, some split into several districts, will be either included wholly within a district or split no more than once. Randolph County, currently divided among four districts, is split between two, and Miller County, also currently in four districts, is split only once.

The constitution allows a small variation in population among districts, 1 percent, to keep counties whole and a slightly larger variation, 3 percent, if municipalities are not split.

“We clearly tried to follow that constitutional provision,” Hunter said. “There was obviously some difference of opinion on whether to cross county lines, but we tried to follow that in our map.”

Anyone can view Monday’s public hearing via the internet but anyone who wants to comment on the maps must appear in person. The state does not have the technology to allow a large audience of participants, Hunter said.

And while the commission won’t shut down comments that stray from the disputed areas, that is what members want to hear, he said.

“Any witness would probably have a more positive response, at least from me, if they stay with where we disagree,” he said.

Written comments can be submitted online as well, he noted.

Under the constitution, the commissions are directed to hold “such public hearings as may be necessary” within 15 days of filing the tentative plan. The commission will decide Monday if additional hearings are necessary, Hunter said.

If the commission files a final plan, it will be the first time since 1991 it has been completed by a commission rather than a panel of judges.

I am optimistic,”Hunter said. “We just have a few areas where there is not an agreement.”

Senate impasse

The Senate commission fell apart on the issue that allowed the House commission to continue its work.

For most of the first two hours of their last meeting, Democrats and Republican members argued over whether it was legal to file a plan with two maps. 

Chairman Marc Ellinger, a Republican, said it wasn’t allowed.

“I don’t believe, in my opinion, that there is any legal authority under the constitution for two plans, or two maps, or a hybrid combination of two plans and two maps,” he said during the meeting.

The vice chair, former state Auditor Susan Montee, a Democrat, said that is wrong.

“I really don’t think we have an issue on the legal side if we want to submit two maps,” she said.

A significant amount of time was spent on the meaning of the word “a” in a legal context. The constitution directs the commissions to file “a tentative redistricting plan and map of the proposed districts.”

The House commission calls it one plan, with two maps. Montee argued that legally, the word “a” includes plurals. She is a lawyer, and so is Ellinger, and so are others on the Senate commission, and that meant lengthy discussion.

“There is not one hint in that constitutional language that multiple maps can be filed,” commissioner Lowell Pearson, a Republican, said. “It is definitively singular in all respects.”

The partisan divisions were so deep that even a motion to recess for lunch failed on a 10-10 vote.

The final action of the commission before adjourning was to close the record on its work. The panel of judges that will make the next attempt will be appointed after Jan. 23, the deadline for a final plan.

Six judges from the three state courts of appeals will be selected by the Missouri Supreme Court and given 90 days to come up with a plan. To take effect, four of the six must agree.

While all 163 House seats are up for election every two years, the 34 Senators serve four-year terms. Odd-numbered districts are on the ballot in presidential election years, which means even-numbered districts are on the ballot in 2022.

Of the 17 even-numbered districts, seven seats are held by members who are seeking other offices or who must leave the legislature because of term limits. Six of those seats are held by Republicans, and one is held by a Democrat.

There are currently 24 Republicans and 10 Democrats in the state Senate.

This story has been updated since it was initially published to provide the correct link to comment on the House plan.

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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.