As the GOP-controlled Legislature seeks to undo a new state legislative redistricting system, some are pointing to the plan’s potential negative impact on majority-black House and Senate districts.
While those arguments aren’t prompting African American Democrats to vote to get rid of what’s known as Clean Missouri, that doesn’t mean black political leaders are universally embracing the new system. Some believe the language in the new redistricting process won’t prevent a scenario where the percentage of black residents in House and Senate districts get reduced — making it easier for white candidates to win.
That’s prompting sharp questions, and outright hostility, among some black elected officials against a redistricting plan aimed at creating more competitive state legislative districts.
“We were sold a dream in a lot of ways,” said Rep. Wiley Price, a St. Louis Democrat who doesn’t like Clean Missouri but voted against a constitutional amendment this week to largely do away with it.
Many Republicans want voters to reexamine Clean Missouri next year, contending the new system is a Democratic scheme to winnow down the amount of GOP members in the Missouri General Assembly. The Missouri House voted for an amendment this week that largely does away with the process that voters approved in 2018.
Clean Missouri supporters believe the language in the amendment will protect minority representation — and emphasize that wording is prioritized over fairness and competitiveness requirements. But even the new plan’s strongest backers acknowledge that the black political community has a right to be skeptical — especially when there’s decades of documented history of white Democrats working against minority-majority districts.
“I don’t think they should be worried given the language. But I do understand the concern,” said Yurij Rudensky of the New York University-based Brennan Center for Justice, a group that's been critical of efforts to do away with Clean Missouri. “And the reality is the history of this country is one where communities of color have been treated incredibly cynically, if not outright with hostility. And so, I think the fears are well founded. When it comes to the language itself, I think this is the strongest race-equity provision in the country as it currently stands.”
Clean Missouri, which passed with more than 60 percent of the vote last year, would give much of the power over state legislative redistricting to a demographer selected from candidates nominated by Democratic state Auditor Nicole Galloway. That person would have to create House and Senate maps that emphasize competitiveness.
The amendment contains language stating that district shall not be drawn with the “intent or result of denying or abridging the equal opportunity of racial minorities to participate in the political process or diminishing their ability to elect representatives of their choice, whether by themselves or by voting in concert with other persons.”
Rudensky said the clause about “voting in concert with other persons” refers to the scenario where racial groups join together to form what he calls “coalition districts.”
“Our racial identities are becoming more complex,” Rudensky said. “And this provides the flexibility to be able to take a finer look at the dynamics in a particular area to see whether there is crossover in terms of political interests and whether there’s cohesion not just within one group.”
But lawmakers like state Rep. Raychel Proudie aren’t convinced that language will prevent the demographer from reducing the percentage of House or Senate districts to around 50 percent African American. That matters, she said, because there’s extensive history within the St. Louis region of white candidates winning elections in districts with a large amount of African American residents.
And while Proudie did not vote for Rep. Dean Plocher’s amendment this week to do away with Clean Missouri's redistricting changes, the Ferguson Democrat remains critcal of the new process.
“I live in St. Louis County, and I know that you can draw my district in either direction, particularly more toward St. Ann,” Proudie said earlier this year. “And the issue isn’t whether it will be a Democrat seat; it will be whether we’ll have representation.”
One of the people that did vote for Plocher’s resolution was state Rep. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, who served eight years in the Missouri Senate before returning to the Missouri House last year.
The University City Democrat said she’s fearful that Clean Missouri will result in white lawmakers representing places like Ferguson. And even though someone could sue over the House or Senate map, Chappelle-Nadal is not confident that an increasingly conservative judiciary will protect black legislative districts.
“After what has happened in St. Louis County and the state of Missouri, I cannot by any means give up the opportunity for African Americans or any other minority to represent other minorities,” Chappelle-Nadal said.
Reason for concern?
From a practical standpoint, Rudensky said the amendment would force the demographer to look at what’s happening in primary elections. He said they would try to answer questions such as: “Which candidates does the black community support? Which candidates does the white community support? And how many white voters are willing to support black preferred candidates?”
“If white folks support white Democrats and black folks support black Democrats, you wouldn’t see any reduction in the percentage,” Rudensky said. “If what the results show is that there are significant numbers of white people who are willing to vote for these black preferred candidates, then that’s the only situation where that percentage could be taken down a bit.”
Whether coalition districts can be created in the St. Louis area remains to be seen, as the region has a lengthy history of racially polarized elections where black candidates win in solidly African American districts and white areas often elect white officials.
Other Clean Missouri critics point to a history of white Democrats working against creation of minority-majority districts. Former Congressman Bill Clay noted in one of his books that many Democrats in the state Legislature strenuously opposed creating the majority-black 1st Congressional District. While Clean Missouri doesn’t affect congressional districts, Clay’s son — Congressman Lacy Clay — has come out against the plan for fears it will dilute minority representation.
More recently, Democrats on a Senate redistricting commission unsuccessfully sought to add largely white suburbs to districts with large black populations. They also sought, and then withdrew, a plan to create state Senate districts that encompass largely black north St. Louis and largely white south St. Louis — which would have almost certainly prevented Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, from prevailing in the 4th Senatorial District.
University of Missouri-St. Louis political science professor David Kimball said black Democrats have often found Republicans to be more reliable allies during Missouri’s redistricting process.
“And part of the deal was to draw districts in north city and north county packed with black Democratic voters so that some of the neighboring districts are whiter — and therefore easier for Republicans to win,” Kimball said. “And I suspect that for black Democrats, Clean Missouri ends that deal. I can see why they’re nervous about what might come.”
Justin Levitt, a professor at at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and nationally renowned expert on redistricting, said some states like Virginia and North Carolina have extensive history of crossover voting, as opposed to states like Alabama and Mississippi which do not.
Levitt said Clean Missouri’s language is flexible enough to respond to “the facts on the ground.” He also emphasized that the final product cannot conflict with the federal Voting Rights Act, which has language aimed at protecting minority representation in the redistricting process.
“So the Clean Missouri language, in my view at least, actually improves on the Voting Rights Act by allowing districts to be drawn where the real measure is effective minority control without packing,” Levitt said. “Now that does allow the demographer, if local white residents have similar preferences, to unpack districts that are overpacked. But only to the extent that the candidates of choice of minority communities would still be able to get elected in those districts.”
Republicans, who control the Missouri General Assembly, are almost certain to place something like Plocher’s amendment on next year’s ballot. And the GOP is hoping to get votes from African American lawmakers.
“Frankly, it’s a real opportunity for us as a Republican Party to work across the aisle with Democrats from St. Louis and Kansas City that have those concerns,” said House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield. “A lot of times you have such a large majority, you get away from those bipartisan issues. I think it’s a good opportunity for us to sit down and say, ‘Hey, you and I now have common interests that we want to work on together.'”
Thus far, House Democrats have generally declined to support GOP efforts to undo Clean Missouri — even if they have problems with it. Plocher's amendment also made changes to the minority-representation language that Rudensky says will make it harder to create "coaltion districts."
Some black lawmakers aren’t completely pessimistic about the plan’s impact on minority-majority districts.
State Rep. Bruce Franks, D-St. Louis, said he’s consulted with numerous redistricting experts about the language covering minority representation. And he said he’s comfortable that the new system won’t hurt majority-black district like the ones he represents.
And while Franks emphasizes that he respects people like Proudie, Chappelle-Nadal and Price who have criticized Clean Missouri, he’s not as enthused about Republicans bringing up its impact on black political power as a reason to get rid of the process.
“You’re not going to tell me you care about black representation but support every single policy that goes against black representation and our community?” Franks said.
Ultimately, Republicans that control the Legislature do not need Democrats to put a constitutional amendment on the 2020 ballot to either get rid or substantially change Clean Missouri. But getting black voters behind such a move may be critical, since it may be a sizable challenge to convince Missourians to repeal something they recently put in place.
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