Bipartisan commission approves new Missouri House districts

The plan increases competition, minority representation in 163-member chamber

By: - January 20, 2022 10:47 am
Missouri House

The House chamber on Jan. 18, 2022 (Tim Bommel/Missouri House Communications).

As the Missouri House finalized its version of a new Congressional map Wednesday, a panel of 20 Republicans and Democrats agreed on a new map for the chamber’s 163 seats.

The House Independent Bipartisan Citizens Commission voted unanimously to approve the plan, which needed support from 14 members to pass before Sunday’s deadline.

The successful completion of a Missouri House map was the first by a citizens’ commission since 1991.

“The reason our commission was successful overall was that we realized we needed to come to some common ground,” said Jonathan Ratliff, a commission member who is also executive director of the House Republican Campaign Committee.

In a statement issued by the Missouri Democratic Party, commission vice chair Keena Smith noted that many observers were skeptical of its chances for success.

“We are encouraged by the bipartisan work this commission has completed,” Smith said.

Of the 163 districts approved Wednesday, there are 38 where Democrats should have the advantage, 97 where Republicans are dominant and 28 districts with past election results showing less than a 10% advantage for either party.

The current House makeup is 108 Republicans and 49 Democrats, with six vacancies. There are 17 members who are not eligible to seek re-election this year, 16 Republicans and one Democrat.

In the new map, there are 16 majority-Black districts and one, in the Kansas City area, that is more than 40% Hispanic. In the current House, there are 11 districts with a Black majority and no districts with a Hispanic population that large.

“This map provides for fair representation of communities of color,” the Democratic Party news release stated.

The map will provide more competition in future elections, said Sean Nicholson, who led a 2018 initiative campaign called Clean Missouri that created a position called the nonpartisan state demographer to draw districts with overall partisan fairness as a priority.

That plan was replaced by a constitutional amendment submitted in 2020 by the GOP-dominated legislature. That amendment made following county and city lines in the districts a top priority, with partisan competitiveness given a lower priority.

“Given a not-ideal set of rules, this was a good outcome,” Nicholson said of the new House map.

The reason our commission was successful overall was that we realized we needed to come to some common ground.

– Jonathan Ratliff, a commission member who is also executive director of the House Republican Campaign Committee

The plan approved by the bipartisan commission Wednesday cuts both the number and times that the 83 counties without enough population for a full House district – 37,760 people – are divided into multiple districts. The current map has 28 of the state’s lower-population counties split among districts, with 36 total splits. The plan approved Wednesday splits only 22 of those counties and none more than once.

The new districts will, barring a successful challenge, be used for candidate filing that opens Feb. 22 and the primary and general elections later this year. 

Citizens’ commissions have been appointed to draw House maps since 1966 and one is appointed after each census. A similar process is used for the state Senate’s 34 districts, but this year’s Senate Independent Bipartisan Citizens Commission was unable to agree on a plan.

The job of drawing Senate districts will now go to a panel of six appellate court judges, who will have until April 23 to file a plan.

Filing for offices on the August primary ballot closes March 29.

The areas under dispute when the meeting began – Boone, Greene and Jackson counties and part of St. Louis County – make up the Democratic Party’s main areas of strength in the state. Democrats don’t hold any seats representing counties with populations for two or fewer districts, and any gains they might make in the areas now settled are likely to be marginal.

Democrats hold a 20-8 edge in the current House districts where the majority of the population lives in St. Louis County. In the new map, there are 16 safe Democratic seats, four safe Republican seats and six competitive seats. 

In Jackson County, Democrats hold a 13-6 edge in the current delegation. The new map has 10 safe Democratic seats, four safe Republican seats and six that would be rated as competitive.

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

In the other two counties where the map was settled Wednesday, the GOP is currently dominant. Republicans hold six of the eight seats representing Greene County and three of the five seats in the Boone County delegation.

The new map has four safe Republican seats and four competitive districts in Greene County. Boone County has one safe Republican seat, one competitive district and three that appear safe for a Democrat.

There are six districts that are now the residence of 12 incumbent House members eligible for re-election, Dave Drebes reported in the subscription political news report Missouri Scout. There are three districts with two Republicans and three with two Democrats.

There is a seventh, in Boone County, but one of the incumbents, state Rep. Sara Walsh, R-Ashland, is running for Congress in the 4th District, which should allow state Rep. Cheri Reisch, R-Hallsville, unopposed in the GOP primary for her final term.

In  most election years, candidates who do not live in the district they wish to represent may not file. But that rule doesn’t apply in redistricting years.

A candidate may file in any district that includes a portion of the county where they live, or any district that includes a portion of the district from the previous map. To be re-elected, any candidate who does not live in their district would have to move there by 2024.

The first meeting of the House commission did not create confidence that it would produce a plan. Members spent hours deadlocked on a chair before agreeing to rotate it between Smith and Republican Jerry Hunter.

But the rancor taught the commissioners a lesson that they had to work together rather than remain locked in partisan polarization, Ratliff said.

“We showed that Republicans and Democrats can work together in the interest of Missouri,” Ratliff said.

Nicholson, who followed both commissions closely and was involved in negotiations over the final map, said the first fruits of that lesson was to find as many areas of agreement as possible.

SUPPORT NEWS YOU TRUST.

“There was a lot of early work and trust built in rural Missouri knocking out the easy things,” he said. “The way the system is built, you have to have bipartisan cooperation if there is going to be a map in the commission phase.”

In the news release, Smith praised the commitment from both sides to reaching a final map.

“Today is a good example of teamwork – we can cooperate,” Smith said. “We never were looking for a Democratic lean or bias. We fought for fair maps across the state, not just in the districts we are ‘concerned’ with.”

This story has been updated since it was initially published.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Rudi Keller
Rudi Keller

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy and the legislature. He’s spent 22 of his 30 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics, most recently as the news editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune. Keller has won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.

MORE FROM AUTHOR