Next week, voters in Missouri, Michigan, Colorado, and Utah will decide whether to take drawing congressional and state legislative districts out of the hands of political hacks and give the responsibility to non-partisan professionals. So, naturally, the political hacks are upset.
The so-called “Clean Movement” – as in cleaning up the mess caused by partisan gerrymandering – started in Michigan, where grass-roots organizers gathered over 425,000 signatures to get it on the ballot in a matter of weeks. The idea eventually spread to purple Colorado and deep-red Utah and Missouri.
Every 10 years, after the Census, congressional and state legislative district boundaries have to be re-drawn to account for shifts in population, a growing population, or, in Missouri’s case, a stagnant population that’s resulted in the loss of two congressional seats in the past two decades. In some states, like California and Arizona, drawing new maps is in the hands of bi-partisan commissions, which draw the boundaries after extensive public meetings.
In most states, the job falls to state legislatures. And GOP-controlled legislatures have often drawn new maps so blatantly racist and partisan that lawsuits in North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Georgia, Alabama, and Wisconsin have challenged them. Gerrymandered maps in North Carolina, Virginia, and Pennsylvania have been tossed out by the courts. One common theme in all the lawsuits is that the gerrymandered districts are racist, packing African-American voters into a few districts, while guaranteeing the remainder will be mostly white and Republican.
In Missouri, Amendment 1 on the November 6 ballot, the “Clean Missouri Initiative,” is about more than re-districting. Since Jefferson City’s good-old-boy network often functions less as a lawmaking body and more as a rural conservative Ponzi scheme, Missouri’s Amendment 1 would also stop unlimited campaign contributions to state lawmakers by capping how much individuals can give to any candidate. It would also outlaw anonymous dark money contributions and would force state lawmakers to wait two years after retirement before jumping on the lucrative lobbyist gravy train.
But what Amendment 1 would mainly do is take the redistricting crayons out of the hands of the pro-gun, pro-Trump, anti-union, rural GOP majority and give them to a professional state demographer, who would be selected by bi-partisan state leaders. Any re-drawn districts the demographer produced would be run by the state Senate, state House, and congressional district commissions already in place. All records about redistricting, including legislators’ e-mails, would become publicly available documents.
The NAACP, League of Women Voters, Metropolitan Congregations United and Common Cause have endorsed Amendment 1. Two political action committees, Advance Missouri and Missourians First, oppose it, with over two-thirds of their money coming from one person – Rex Sinquefield, a wealthy, conservative donor to right-wing causes.
Two local political figures, one from each party, have also been making the rounds fighting Amendment 1, clucking their tongues and spouting pieties about good governance. The Republicans have trotted out former U.S. Senator Jim Talent, who chairs the Sinquefield Missourians First PAC.
In intellectual gymnastics worth of a Simone Biles balance beam dismount, Talent has claimed Amendment 1 “will produce long, snake-like, spaghetti-like gerrymandered districts.” But how would a measure designed to get rid of partisan gerrymandering result in more gerrymandering? Talent claims it’s because the professional demographer will succumb to the corrupt political culture in Jefferson City, since the demographer’s salary will be paid by the state, that money will have to be appropriated by the legislature, and the legislature is full of skeevy incumbents who will pressure the demographer to draw unfair maps.
But Talent saves his most painful political contortions until the end, when he expresses concern that black constituents will find themselves represented by white, rural lawmakers under Amendment 1. “If you live in the city, you’re going to be represented by someone from the suburban or exurban areas,” he said. “You’ll have districts that run from North St. Louis to Gasconade County.”
For someone who is being paid by an arch-conservative billionaire, who has angled for a national security position in the Trump administration, and who has never publicly condemned, or even mildly criticized Trump’s racist white nationalism to suddenly be concerned with the political welfare of African-American Missourians is revelatory.
On the Democratic side, Jane Dueker – lawyer, commentator, political hired gun, and former chief of staff for Democratic Governor Bob Holden – is also expressing concern that the Ville or JeffVanderLou could end up being represented in Washington, D.C. by some guy named Bruce from Chesterfield. She bases part of her concern on a June U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Texas case of Abbott v Perez, in which the court ruled, 5-4, that Texas did not gerrymander legislative districts because of racism.
“I am terrified after Abbott that these (new) districts are going to break up urban districts and the federal courts will let them,” Dueker e-mailed in response to my questions. “How do they think Missouri law will protect minority representation once the Supreme Court guts the Voting Rights Act?”
Dueker claims these are her own opinions and that she’s not being paid by a client – a question that had to be asked since, in the past, she has represented the payday loan industry, opposed St. Louis’ attempt to hike the minimum wage, and supported County Executive Steve Stenger in the racially charged primary against then-County Executive Charlie Dooley in 2014.
But whether they’re made for morality or money, these objections to Amendment 1 are nonsense. The amendment requires new districts to be compact, contiguous, and when possible, stay within county or city limits. Amendment 1 will allow voters to take gerrymandering power away from lawmakers and turn the process over to a non-partisan professional.
Gerrymandering, along with voter suppression, is the primary way non-white votes are diluted. It’s how extremist Trump supporters representing a minority of the nation’s population stay in power.
We should all vote “yes” on Amendment 1.
Charles Jaco is a journalist, author, and activist. Follow him on Twitter at @charlesjaco1.