Missouri legislative redistricting process gets off to inauspicious start

Jason Hancock
Missouri Independent
The Missouri Capitol rotunda in Jefferson City. Creative Commons photo courtesy of Onasill

For hours on Tuesday, the bipartisan commission established to draw new Missouri House districts couldn’t agree on anything. 

Over and over again the 20-member commission, evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, deadlocked on who should serve as chair, how many public hearings to hold, whether testimony could be delivered remotely and, at times, even what motion they were debating. 

It was an ominous start to a process that plays out every 10 years — and is delayed this year due to U.S. Census data relied on to draw new maps being months behind schedule because of COVID-19. 

If the gridlock continues, the task of drawing 163 House districts will be turned over to a panel of judges.

For their part, members remain optimistic that partisan differences could be overcome and the process can play out as intended. 

But that bipartisan spirit wasn’t on display Tuesday. And nowhere was that more evident than in the decision to choose a chair for the committee to oversee public hearings. 

“I don’t know where this idea has come from that Republicans are going to be doing underhanded stuff and we have to keep them from being chair,” said Jerry Hunter, a Republican from St. Louis who has served on previous redistricting commissions. 

On the Senate side, a different commission tasked with drawing 34 districts for the upper chamber quickly met, picked leadership and set future public hearings. 

That wasn’t the case for the House commission. 

Republicans on the House side said because Gov. Mike Parson appoints the commission, and because he’s a Republican, that his party should chair the meetings. They argued that is historically how the process has worked under Democratic governors. 

Democrats cried foul, saying the commission is evenly split and leadership shouldn’t default to one party or the other. They proposed a coin toss, with the winner becoming chair and the loser becoming vice chair, with each taking turns running public meetings. 

Harvey Ferdman, a Democrat, said the commission is evenly split between the parties because “it requires us to be impartial.

“Having a 50-50 split forces us to work together in a fair and equitable manner,” he said. “We owe it to the citizens to allow alternating chairing of the meetings, or should I say running the meetings, between the two parties.”

Numerous votes were taken on both party’s proposals, with progress dying on 10-10 votes. 

Unable to choose a chair, the commission decided to move on to areas where they felt they could agree. 

Republicans suggested three public hearings on the House maps — in Springfield, Kansas City and St. Louis. If more meetings were needed, they argued, the commission could schedule more down the road. 

Democrats said that wasn’t nearly enough and pushed for a hearing in each of the state’s eight Congressional districts. 

Debate on the issue dragged on before a compromise was finally struck. The commission voted to hold six meetings — Oct. 18 in Springfield, Oct. 19 in Kansas City, Oct. 21 in St. Louis, Nov. 4 in Jefferson City, Nov. 9 in Cape Girardeau and Nov. 10 in Kirksville. 

When debate finally returned to the question of who should serve as chair, the consensus collapsed. At one point, the commission even held a secret ballot vote on the issue, which unsurprisingly deadlocked again 10-10. 

In the end, Democrats scored a victory. Hunter was chosen as chair and a Democrat, Keena Smith as vice chair. But they will act as co-chairs during public hearings and alternate power to resolve differences at those meetings. 

The Senate commission selected Republican Mark Ellinger as chair and Democrat Susan Montee as vice chair with little controversy. 

The redistricting process has undergone major changes over the last few years.

In 2018, voters approved a process that called on a nonpartisan demographer to draw the maps with an emphasis on partisan competitiveness. The GOP-dominated legislature, fearing the process would result in Democrats picking up seats in the General Assembly, approved a plan to put the process in the hands of bipartisan commissions. 

Voters signed off on the legislature’s proposal last year.

The legislature will draw the state’s eight Congressional districts.