News Briefs

Lawsuit alleges Missouri Senate map hurt minority voters, splits too many counties

By: - July 29, 2022 11:34 am

A new lawsuit seeks to alter five state Senate districts but not before voters go to the polls this year (Tessa Weinberg/Missouri Independent).

A lawsuit challenging the state Senate redistricting map being used for Tuesday’s primaries alleges it violates the Missouri Constitution because it “packs” Black residents into two St. Louis area districts and splits Buchanan County without good cause.

Filed by attorney Chuck Hatfield on behalf of three plaintiffs, the lawsuit names the Judicial Redistricting Commission and Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft as defendants. The commission created the map and Ashcroft implemented it for this year’s elections.

Ashcroft “hasn’t been served and we can’t comment on the litigation, but whatever the law is we will follow the law,” spokesman JoDonn Chaney said Thursday.

The lawsuit asks for changes to five Senate districts and an order to Ashcroft not to use the map “for any purpose.”

The state Senate has 34 districts, with half of the members elected every two years. This year, even-numbered districts are on the ballot and the lawsuit challenges the map for two and seeks modifications for a third on this year’s ballot. 

Hatfield said the intent of the lawsuit is not to force changes before Tuesday or get the proposed alternative put in place for November. Instead, he said he wants the case to force changes in time for the 2024 elections.

The filing does not state that explicitly, but Hatfield said the regular pace of litigation means that a practical result from the case is months away.

“It is not an element of the claim so it doesn’t say what we are not asking for,” Hatfield said.

He also said he does not intend to seek a court order that would alter the process of conducting elections this year.

The three named plaintiffs are representative of the voters allegedly hurt by the maps. The lawsuit is being underwritten by Fair Maps Missouri, a project of Missouri WIN, which is affiliated with the Shared Roots Donor Alliance, a liberal umbrella organization in St. Louis.

Under the provisions of the state constitution guiding redistricting for legislative seats, the first priority, intended to “take precedence over any other part of this constitution,” is to make them racially fair. Another priority is that splits of counties “shall each be as few as possible” and that “as few municipal lines shall be crossed as possible.”

A bipartisan commission given six months to draw a map failed to agree. When that happens, the job falls to a panel of six appeals court judges.

An ideal Senate district has 181,027 people, but the constitution allows a deviation of up to 1% overall and up to 3% for individual districts if they do not cross municipal or county boundaries. Counties that have enough population for one or more districts are supposed to have as many whole districts as the population allows, with the remainder attached to a single adjacent district.

A line drawn through Hazelwood as a boundary between the 13th and 14th districts is unnecessary and violates the “few as possible” provision and is used to “pack” Black residents into the 13th District, the lawsuit alleges.

The split of Buchanan County, which has 84,793 people, also violates the constitution, the lawsuit claims.

“It was and is possible to draw maps that do not split Buchanan County or the City of Hazelwood,” Hatfield wrote in the case filed Wednesday.

The redrawn 13th District, under the plan adopted by the judicial commission, is 71.2% Black and 75.6% minority overall. The 14th District is 51.1% Black and 62.8% minority overall.

Plaintiff Jessica Estes of University City, the suit alleges, is damaged because she is Black and the map lines mean her vote is “diluted because she is unable to vote with a large enough block of African American voters in order to elect a representative of her choice.”

Both districts are currently represented by Black lawmakers in the Senate. Sen. Angela Moseley represents the 13th District and Sen. Brian Williams, unopposed for re-election, represents the 14th District.

The Buchanan County split is unnecessary if the boundaries of 12th, 21st and 34th districts are adjusted, Hatfield wrote.

A proposed map attached to the lawsuit “shows that it is possible to draw a map that complies with all constitutional requirements, including preserving communities,” he wrote.

The case was assigned to Circuit Judge Jon Beetem and no hearings have been scheduled.

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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.