The Judicial Redistricting Commission listens Friday to comments during a public hearing on a new state Senate plan. The commissioners are, from left, Mary Sheffield of the Southern District, Thomas Chapman of the Western District, Chair Cynthia Martin of the Western District, Vice Chair Gary Lynch of the Southern District, and Angela Quigless and Michael Gardner, both of the Eastern District. (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent)
Local election officials want new state Senate district maps as soon as possible, Greene County Clerk Shane Schoeller told the Judicial Redistricting Commission Friday. But when the panel’s public hearing was over, no one would say when it must be finished.
Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft’s office provided clarity a few hours later – the maps are due before filing closes on March 29.
The Missouri Constitution gives the judicial commission 90 days after the discharge of the 20-member Senate Independent Bipartisan Citizens Commission, which could not agree on a plan before its constitutional deadline.
The citizens commission notified Ashcroft’s office on Dec. 23 that it was “unable to meet the constitutional deadline for the filing of a tentative plan, and final plan, and so does stand discharged.”
Counting Dec. 24 as the first day, that makes March 23 the 90th day. Ashcroft’s office did not provide a specific date.
“Based from the letter of discharge received from the Senate Independent Bipartisan Citizens Commission, dated December 23, 2021, we are confident the Judicial Commission will fulfill their duties and provide updated district maps to our office before the last day of candidate filing,” read a statement sent by spokesman JoDonn Chaney.
If the commission can agree on a map, and it meets constitutional requirements, the districts will be ready for entry into computer systems that assign voters to particular election districts. They are currently locked until April 19, when certification of the April municipal elections is complete, said Schoeller, president of the Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities.
Changes can be made until May 24, when preparations must begin to order ballots so absentee voting can begin June 22, he said.
That period, he noted, “is also when we will be responsible for checking initiative petition signatures and canvassing voter registration rolls.”
Late maps, he added, “in many counties will severely strain staff capacity.”
The uncertainty about the deadline for commission action grew out of the lack of information made public about its work. The six-member commission was appointed Jan. 11 by the Missouri Supreme Court in an order that did not take notice of the discharge letter and directed the members to draw maps for both the House and Senate if necessary.
The House Independent Citizens Bipartisan Commission completed its map for the 163 House districts.
Because the last day for either citizens commission to file a map was Jan. 25, the lack of clarity made it conceivable that the commission had until sometime in mid- to late April to file its plan.
Asked by a reporter Friday, neither Gary Cain, redistricting project manager for the Office of Administration, nor Judge Cynthia Martin, commission chair, would give the specific date.
Friday’s hearing was the commission’s first, and perhaps only, public hearing to take testimony on maps. It is also the first time the has met in public. It met without notice to elect Martin of the Western District as chair and Gary Lynch of the Eastern District as vice-chair.
At the start of the meeting, Martin alluded to a need to produce a map quickly but did not mention a deadline.
“We are mindful of important dates for some of you with respect to our work,” Martin said. “We can assure you we are doing everything in our power to work deliberately, with dispatch, and yet carefully and in compliance with the law as we undertake the work we have been charged with.”
In a statement released through Supreme Court spokeswoman Beth Riggert, the commission acknowledged it has a hard deadline to meet but did not name the specific date.
“The judicial commission is aware it has an outside date for completing its work pursuant to the Missouri Constitution, but it also is well aware of the practical implications of not completing its work before statutory deadlines,” the statement read. “The judicial commission will make every effort to complete its work deliberately, thoughtfully and with respect for those practical implications.”
A March 23 deadline would give candidates about six days to determine if they are qualified to run in the district already chosen or must switch, or perhaps even abandon their campaign. Missouri’s 34 state senators serve four-year terms, with 17 districts on the ballot every two years. This year, even-numbered districts will select senators.
Only three other people testified Friday, although the commission has received numerous written comments and map proposals through its web portal.
James Robinson of Unity-StL PAC asked the commission to be careful when drawing districts in the St. Louis area. He offered a map proposal for seven districts that would result in four majority white districts and three majority Black districts.
“Our interest is in making sure minorities are properly represented,” Robinson said.
The other comments were from representatives of the League of Women Voters of Missouri, who asked for the commission to draw as many competitive districts as possible. Districts that tilt heavily to one party tend to elect people at the extremes of their parties because that is the electorate that dominates primaries, said Sharon Schneeberger, chair of the league’s Fair Redistricting Committee.
“Without competitive districts, elected representatives have little incentive to serve the interests of their constituents,” she said.
Of the 17 state Senate districts on this year’s ballot, 14 are held by Republicans and three are held by Democrats. Since filing has opened, 31 candidates have filed but no Democrats have filed in the districts held by Republicans and no Republicans have filed in the districts represented by Democrats.
Of the eight Republican incumbents seeking re-election, five have already drawn primary challengers including one, Sen. Lincoln Hough of Springfield, whose opponent is charging he is not conservative enough.
In the written comments to the commission, the 10 Republican members of the citizens commission described its method for protecting minority representation in its final proposal and suggested it be adopted.
“In closing, we do not suggest that the (GOP) map is the only solution,” the statement read. “After hours of work, its solution to the St. Louis City/County puzzle and its protection of minority interests are decisions in which we take some pride.”
Democrats currently hold 10 of 34 seats in the Missouri Senate, and the mathematics of voting patterns suggest that is about as well as they are likely to do in the near future, Ari Stern, a math professor at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote to the commission.
Stern wrote that he, along with a team of mathematicians, worked through 100,000 computer-generated alternatives and found that while statewide voting would suggest Democrats should win about 43 percent of Senate seats, the geographic distribution of votes only suggests they would win 29 percent, their current share.
While Democrats and Republicans on the citizens commission submitted versions of the map that meet constitutional requirements, Stern said the Democrats’ final proposal is more competitive.
“Overall, (the Democratic map) is by far the best plan at upholding partisan fairness in the terms presented by the constitutional language,” Stern wrote.
Sean Nicholson, who led a 2018 initiative campaign that created a new system for drawing legislative districts but saw it reversed by a legislative enactment approved by voters in 2020, wrote to the commission that the best way to draw a map is to do the easy parts first.
He suggested that the judges accept the parts of the citizens commission maps where there was agreement, and then work on the areas where they did not.
“Solve the easy problems first,” he wrote, “which then brings the remaining choices into focus.”
This article has been updated to include a statement about the deadline for the redistricting commission.
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