Legislative deadlock, commission failure creates uncertainty for Missouri candidate filing

Filing for office begins Tuesday under the current state Senate and U.S. House districts

By: - February 21, 2022 5:55 am

Though Congress has only funded local elections three times since 2010, the $75 million in the latest spending bill is far from the $53 billion over 10 years that election security experts say is necessary (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images).

In 1932, after Missouri lost three congressional seats and state lawmakers deadlocked over redistricting, all candidates for the U.S. House ran on a statewide at-large ballot.

In the August primary, there were 56 Democratic candidates, 29 Republican candidates and 13 Socialist Party candidates seeking nomination for the 13 available seats. All 16 incumbents ran for re-election and 12 survived the primary. But only eight won, as Democrats swept every seat.

This year’s deadlock over a map for Missouri’s eight districts won’t result in that kind of wide-open race. An at-large contest is sanctioned by a federal law in states that lose seats so that failure to design new districts doesn’t leave parts of a state without representation.

There’s no change in Missouri’s representation this year, so when filing begins Tuesday, candidates will file in the districts as they currently exist, according to Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft’s office.

The last chance for any changes before filing opens ended last week, when the state Senate adjourned until 2 p.m. Tuesday without passing a redistricting bill.

“We are planning on candidate filing as usual this Tuesday,” JoDonn Chaney, spokesman for the secretary of state, wrote in an email, noting that congressional districts are set by a state statute that has not changed.

The same will be true for the 17 state Senate districts on this year’s ballot. A six-member Judicial Redistricting Commission has until mid-April to complete a map for the chamber’s 34 districts. It’s just getting started, but had to cancel a public hearing last week on how it should design the districts due to weather.

Filing closes March 29.

Candidates who file for the Missouri House know that their districts won’t change. The new map for those 163 districts was completed last month by a citizens commission.

Every announced candidate for Congress lives in the district they desire to represent. But if new maps are drawn that exclude their residence, they are not barred from running. Members of the U.S. House must be 25, a citizen for at least seven years and a resident of the state.

Legislative candidates generally must live in the district they represent. But after a reapportionment, candidates for state Senate may file in any district that includes a portion of their old district or county where they live, and House candidates may file in any district that includes a portion of their county.

With a chance that the judicial commission could file a map before filing closes, candidates may wish to wait to file or, once filed, decide whether to stay in that race or withdraw and refile if they find they no longer live in the district.

The problems throwing sand into the usually smooth machine of officially beginning the election year stem from the late publication of data from the 2020 census. Originally scheduled for release by April, the detailed data wasn’t delivered until August.

If the data had come as originally planned, lawmakers could have passed a redistricting plan through both chambers with a majority vote and, with Republican Gov. Mike Parson expected to sign a plan passed in the GOP-dominated legislature, the map would be set. 

A special session in the fall could have had the same result. But Parson left the job to this year’s session, which means any plan that would go into effect before the Aug. 2 primary – or while filing remains open – needs a two-thirds majority in each chamber.

But there are deep Republican divisions about how to draw the map. Legislative leaders and most rank-and-file members support the House-passed plan, while an insurgent conservative caucus wants a radical revision to tilt it further in favor of Republicans. Conservative caucus members have used the state Senate’s rules allowing unlimited debate to stall action, leaving the current districts in place for now.

The senior Republican in Missouri’s U.S. House delegation, Rep. Sam Graves of Tarkio, endorsed the House plan on Tuesday on KFEQ in St. Joseph and said it was time to cease debate.

“I thought we had a good consensus map in the House that came out of the Missouri House and, again, then it broke down in the Senate, which is unfortunate, because then if it goes to the courts it’s a coin toss,” Graves says. “We have no way of knowing what we get.”

Twice, in 1972 and again in 1982, federal courts drew congressional maps for Missouri. 

In 1972, it was because lawmakers repeatedly designed maps that were too divergent in population. In 1982, the court drew the map because lawmakers failed to do so in their 1981 session.

In both instances, the court-ordered map was delivered before filing began.

But the courts don’t intervene unless asked, and so far no one has asked. 

Typically, a lawsuit over congressional districts alleges constitutional violations due to unequal population, or that some other legal flaw, such as failing to protect minority representation, exists.

Missouri’s eight districts were identical in population when they were drawn in 2011. Today they range from 4.5% above the ideal population to 7% below the ideal.

If the impasse is broken, Chaney wrote in the email, it legislators must decide how to proceed with filing.

“In the event an unprecedented situation does occur it would be up to the legislature to determine the course,” Chaney wrote.

Missouri’s filing dates are fairly early in the year compared to when the ballot must be certified for the August primary. But other restrictions imposed by the election calendar provide only a narrow window of time to implement changes resulting from new districts, Boone County Clerk Brianna Lennon said.

By law, the August ballot must be set by May 24, 10 weeks before the primary, she said. That is also the day when any changes in districts must be locked in so voters get the ballots with the candidates who will represent them, she said.

“We already have a very narrow period of time to make the redistricting updates in the statewide system,” said Lennon, who was deputy director of elections under Secretary of State Jason Kander. 

Because the April municipal elections are underway, she said, no changes in any districts can be made until the results are certified in mid-April.

“The longer it goes without having certainty in what the changes are, the harder it is to make changes in the system,” Lennon said.

The key fight in the General Assembly over congressional districts is whether to redraw the map to make it likely Republicans would win seven seats instead of the current six. One proposal rejected in the House would have split Boone County’s 180,000 people among three districts.

Lennon already must provide ballots for five political parties in five Missouri House districts, with a further division of the county into two commissioner districts that each include portions of several House seats.

A plan that divides the county, currently entirely within the 4th Congressional District, would multiply the number of individual ballots that she must prepare.

“The tricky part is the way the statewide system is set up,” Lennon said, “once the election is created, we need to have the logistics in place to do absentee voting and make sure we have all the ballot styles.”

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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.