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Analysis

Redistricting Reform Under Threat

With rollbacks to redistricting reform on the ballot, we’re asking a court to ensure that Missouri voters know what they’re actually voting for.

The 2018 midterm was a land­mark year for redis­trict­ing reform, with voters passing meas­ures aimed at curb­ing gerry­man­der­ing in Missouri, Michigan, Color­ado, Ohio, and Utah.

In some of these states, however, politi­cians and party offi­cials imme­di­ately began trying to dismantle voter-approved reforms, aiming to restore their own power and protect their own interests during map-draw­ing.

In Missouri, lawmakers want to dismantle the Clean Missouri redis­trict­ing reforms, which passed with 62 percent of the vote in 2018. Under the cover of a stay-at-home order during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Repub­lican-controlled General Assembly passed a proposed consti­tu­tional amend­ment that will appear on the Novem­ber ballot as Amend­ment 3.  

Among other things, Amend­ment 3 would weaken import­ant protec­tions for Missour­i’s communit­ies of color and take the teeth out of provi­sions requir­ing partisan fair­ness when draw­ing maps. It also elim­in­ates a new inde­pend­ent nonpar­tisan state demo­grapher posi­tion and limits the public’s abil­ity to chal­lenge bad maps in court. All told, Amend­ment 3 would resur­rect Missour­i’s deeply flawed redis­trict­ing system — a system that was rife with dead­lock and abuse and that Missouri­ans across the polit­ical spec­trum eagerly replaced in 2018.

Remark­ably, however, the summary state­ment that Repub­lican legis­lat­ors draf­ted to describe Amend­ment 3 on the ballot makes no mention of any of these changes. Not only does the ballot language fail to inform voters that they would be repeal­ing the reforms that they had just passed, but it gives the false impres­sion that the amend­ment is doing the exact oppos­ite, advan­cing inde­pend­ent and fair redis­trict­ing with strengthened guards against racial and partisan gerry­man­der­ing.

A group of citizens have brought a lawsuit to make sure voters have the inform­a­tion they need to reject Amend­ment 3 and main­tain inde­pend­ent and fair redis­trict­ing. A Missouri trial court has already sided with these citizens and ruled that the General Assembly’s ballot language was decept­ive, unfair, and insuf­fi­cient, find­ing that it failed to inform voters that Amend­ment 3 “would elim­in­ate the legis­lat­ive redis­trict­ing rules Missouri­ans over­whelm­ingly adop­ted” and “replace them with a redis­trict­ing process similar in substance to the one they just voted to aban­don.” This decision has been appealed to the Missouri Court of Appeals, where it will be heard on August 28.

The Bren­nan Center, together with other national and Missouri-based civil and voting rights organ­iz­a­tions, filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the court to uphold the ruling strik­ing down mislead­ing language and high­light­ing just how detri­mental Amend­ment 3 would be to voting rights for communit­ies of color. A bipar­tisan group of former lawmakers, includ­ing former U.S. Sens. John Danforth and Claire McCaskill, also submit­ted a friend-of-the-court brief, arguing that the court should closely scru­tin­ize Amend­ment 3’s ballot language because the legis­lature has a personal interest in main­tain­ing its power to gerry­mander.

This case follows other efforts to under­mine citizen-approved reforms in the states. In Michigan, for example, Repub­lican legis­lat­ors sued after voters created an inde­pend­ent redis­trict­ing commis­sion, asking a federal court to declare the commis­sion uncon­sti­tu­tional. The suit was unsuc­cess­ful, mean­ing that Michigan will use an inde­pend­ent commis­sion for the first time during next year’s redis­trict­ing process. In Utah, lawmakers threatened to elim­in­ate key compon­ents of the voter-approved reforms, but after sustained pres­sure from advocacy groups, legis­lat­ors settled on a comprom­ise that preserved key compon­ents of the new redis­trict­ing commis­sion.

Now, it’s Missour­i’s turn. Inde­pend­ent and fair redis­trict­ing is incred­ibly popu­lar, which is why the proponents of Amend­ment 3 are lean­ing heav­ily on decep­tion to pass a proposal that offers the public no bene­fit. It will be up to the Missouri Court of Appeals to see through the blatant lies and not allow unfair, inac­cur­ate ballot language to mislead voters.