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Government, Politics & Issues

Appeals Court Changes Ballot Summary For Clean Missouri Repeal

Missouri House of Representatives members speak on the House floor on the last day of the legislative session.
File photo I Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
A Cole County judge ruled that a ballot summary for a measure altering Missouri's state legislative redistricting system is misleading.

Updated Aug. 31 with appeals court decision

A Missouri appeals court Monday changed the summary of a ballot item aimed at repealing a state legislative redistricting system voters approved in 2018.

Amendment 3 would effectively eliminate the Clean Missouri system that gave power to draw House and Senate districts to a nonpartisan demographer. Cole County Judge Patricia Joyce contended the summary the Legislature wrote to describe it was "misleading, unfair and insufficient" — and provided a new description that voters would see on their ballots.

State officials appealed that decision, and the Missouri Court of Appeals further changed that summary on Monday. In addition to substantially changing the wording of the summary, the judges moved small changes about restricting lobbyist gifts and lowering donation limits above the repeal of the Clean Missouri redistricting system. Here's the new summary:

  • Ban gifts from paid lobbyists to legislators and their employees.
  • Reduce legislative campaign contribution limits.
  • Change the redistricting process voters approved in 2018 by: (i) transferring responsibility for drawing state legislative districts from the Nonpartisan State Demographer to Governor-appointed bipartisan commissions; (ii) modifying and reordering the redistricting criteria.

A spokesman for Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt said there would likely be a request to transfer the case to the Missouri Supreme Court, but he added no formal decision was made yet.

Sean Soendker Nicholson, who is leading the group seeking to defeat Amendment 3, said his organization is mulling its options — but noted this is the second straight time a court rejected the Legislature's original summary.

Original story from Aug. 17:

A Cole County judge Monday rewrote a ballot summary for a proposal repealing and replacing a state legislative redistricting process that voters approved in 2018.

If the decision is upheld, it could have a big impact on whether the plan, known as Amendment 3, passes or fails — since voters often make their decisions on initiatives based on the ballot summary language.

At issue is what is known as Clean Missouri, a constitutional amendment voters overwhelmingly approved that included state redistricting and ethics changes. Under that redistricting system, a demographer would draw House and Senate maps — with an emphasis on partisan fairness and competitiveness. Bipartisan House and Senate commissions would have a chance to overrule the demographer if 70% of members object under certain circumstances.

Amendment 3 would get rid of the demographer and instead have either bipartisan commissions or appellate judges draw the lines — and would change the criteria of what should be prioritized. It also makes small changes to some of Clean Missouri’s items not related to redistricting, including slightly lowering campaign donation limits for Senate candidates and decreasing the limit for most lobbyists' gifts from $5 to zero.

Because the General Assembly placed Amendment 3 on the ballot, lawmakers also wrote the summary that will appear on ballots aimed at succinctly describing the initiative. That summary stated that Amendment 3 “banned all lobbyist gifts to legislators and their employees,” “reduced legislative campaign contribution limits” and “created citizen-led independent bipartisan commissions to draw state legislative districts based on one person, one vote, minority voter protection, compactness, competitiveness, fairness, and other criteria.”

In response to a lawsuit that Amendment 3 opponents filed, Cole County Circuit Judge Patricia Joyce ruled that the summary is “misleading, unfair, and insufficient.” She replaced it with a summary that states that Amendment 3:

  • Repeals rules for drawing state legislative districts approved by voters in November 2018 and replaces them with rules proposed by the Legislature.
  • Lowers the campaign contribution limit for Senate candidates by $100.
  • Lowers legislative gift limits from $5 to $0, with exemptions for some lobbyists.

Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, called the summary that Joyce wrote "insufficient, unfair, and completely misleading," adding "we will appeal her ruling and vigorously defend Missourians’ right to draw their own legislative districts.”

Joyce wrote that the summary the Legislature wrote “fails to inform voters that adopting [the amendment] would eliminate the legislative redistricting rules Missourians overwhelmingly adopted just two years ago to combat political gerrymandering and replace them with a redistricting process similar in substance to the one they just voted to abandon.”

“The legislature’s summary instead seeks to entice voters to adopt the measure by misleadingly overstating a modest $5 reduction in allowable lobbyist gifts and a $100 reduction to Senate contribution limits,” Joyce wrote. “Where, as here, the legislature seeks to override the recent, clearly expressed will of Missouri voters on a matter as important as redistricting, the law requires that voters be plainly informed what they are being asked to consider.”

Sean Soendker Nicholson, who is leading the campaign to defeat Amendment 3, said the ruling will allow voters to make a more informed decision on Nov. 3.

“The law is very clear that you have to have an honest, fair summary of what you're voting on,” Nicholson said. “And the judge ruled today very clearly that what the Legislature proposed is misleading and has to be fixed.”

A spokesman for Attorney General Eric Schmitt said the GOP official is reviewing the case and considering next steps.

Schatz defended the amendment.

“Amendment 3 specifically puts ordinary Missourians of both parties, not legislators and especially not an unaccountable bureaucrat, in charge of redistricting," said Schatz, referring to the demographer when mentioning the 'unaccountable bureaucrat.' "Amendment 3 requires legislative districts to be compact, contiguous, and will protect communities from being split up in order to achieve partisan outcomes."

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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