As the end of the year nears, the St. Louis Board of Alderman will be faced with a monumental task: redrawing ward districts based on 2020 census data to cut the number of wards in half, from 28 to 14.
In response to this, Reform St. Louis on Monday turned in over 38,000 petition signatures in support of a proposition that would shift that responsibility to an independent citizen redistricting commission.
The signatures were submitted just a few days after a ward-by-ward analysis of 2020 census data was released to the Board of Aldermen by the city Planning and Urban Design Agency. Activists now expect the proposition to be voted on by city residents in February during a special election.
“Independent commissions — not bipartisan commissions but independent — commissions are the gold standard for ensuring a transparent, citizen-driven redistricting process,” said Benjamin Singer, executive director of Show Me Integrity, the organization spearheading Reform St. Louis.
Singer later clarified, saying a bipartisan commission is when partisan insiders are appointed, half Democratic and half Republican, like in Missouri’s legislature. But, he said, a truly independent commission isn’t composed of partisan appointees.
City voters passed the ward reduction in a 2012 election, which stipulated that the new 14 wards would be redrawn after the 2020 census. It laid out a plan in which the first election in the newly drawn wards would be held in 2023 for all wards and aldermanic president. Odd-numbered wards would start with two-year terms, to stay in line with the election schedule set by the city’s charter in 1915. The Board president and even-numbered wards would run during that initial election for a full four-year term.
Data released by the city last week showed that the seven North St. Louis wards with majority Black populations all saw significant (over 20%) population decreases from 2010 to 2020:
Ward 1 — -23.93%
Ward 2 — -29.64%
Ward 3 — -27.38%
Ward 4 —-26.14%
Ward 21 — -22.06%
Ward 22 — -21.56%
Ward 27 — -25.04%
The city as a whole experienced a 5.6% drop in population in the last decade, taking it from 319,294 to 301,57
Several activists spoke Monday outside the city’s board of elections building on behalf of Reform St. Louis before they turned in the 38,000 signatures. A large focus was on the concern that Black and minority representation could be at stake in the redistricting process if it’s not done with equity in mind.
The St. Louis Association of Community Organizations’ (SLACO) executive director, Kevin McKinney, on Monday morning said that his organization represents about 39 different neighborhoods in the city.
“Our neighborhoods are very concerned about trying to make sure that the aldermen do not split up the neighborhoods, they don’t want what we’ve had in the past where one neighborhood is represented by three aldermen [and] three neighborhoods are represented by one alderman,” he said.
Reform St. Louis is led by a coalition of leaders and organizations who in March announced the effort to get Prop R on the ballot. Among the 11 named endorsers are League of Women Voters of Metro St. Louis, the Black Caucus of the Missouri Democratic Party, Missouri Faith Voices and former candidate for Missouri Secretary of State, Yinka Faleti.
Jamie Cox kicked off the media conference outside the City Board of Elections, where the signatures were later turned in. Cox is the policy chair and organizer for Reform St. Louis.
The proposition’s fate is now in the hands of the St. Louis Election Board, who will determine if the petition has enough signatures. If so, it will go before the Board of Aldermen for 60 days, at which point the election board could schedule an election to bring the issue to voters.
“Proposition R started as a dream of this coalition a few months ago,” she said. “And for the last few months, we have been working hard gathering opinions and voices of Saint Louisans on how we can make a better government. Proposition R has been built on a grassroots coalition through polling and testing and making sure we have citizen-led some opportunities and coalition meetings to hear how people feel about this policy.”
Faleti, who unsuccessfully ran for Missouri secretary of state against John “Jay” Ashcroft in last year’s election, also took to the mic on Monday.
“Like you, I'm concerned about accountability and transparency in our local government and, fortunately for us, there is an organization doing something about our concerns, the Reform St. Louis Coalition,” he said. “I'm a volunteer with the coalition and we're working to bring about the overdue and much-needed reforms to our St. Louis city government.”
The current Board of Aldermen was organized in 1914. In 1950, the city’s population had peaked at 856,000. Seventy years later, St. Louis’ population has decreased to just over one third of that peak.
Proposition R includes a host of reforms, such as decreasing the influence of big money by stopping aldermanic conflicts of interest; ensuring ward boundary maps drawn by an equitably selected independent citizen commission; preventing the Board of Aldermen from overriding the will of voters; and ensuring the public knows if an alderman has a personal conflict of interest in something they are voting on.
Reform St. Louis is an organization established by Show Me Integrity, which last year campaigned in support of the city’s new nonpartisan approval voting system.
To learn more about the Reform St. Louis campaign and Proposition R, visit reformstlouis.com.