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Pro & Con: Amendment 3 Has Missouri Voters Back To The Drawing Board On Legislative Districts

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Sean Soendker Nicholson & Bob Onder
Sean Soendker Nicholson (at left) and state Sen. Bob Onder presented two very different views on Amendment 3 during Tuesday’s talk show.

Two years ago, when the Clean Missouri campaign asked Missouri voters if they wanted an overhaul of the state’s legislative redistricting system, plus some new limits on campaign finance and lobbyist gifts, the answer was a clear yes. A strong majority voted in favor of Amendment 1 on Nov. 6, 2018, and proponents of the amendment hailed its passage as a victory for political accountability.

But now the fate of the recently adopted redistricting system — which includes a nonpartisan state demographer and new criteria prioritizing “competitiveness” and “partisan fairness” — is in doubt. Some Missouri lawmakers are asking voters to reconsider and pushing for the passage of Amendment 3 this fall.

While reading the ballot language, voters may experience a sense of déjà vu, as proposed changes to two arguably distinct issues — political money and political representation — are again combined in one ballot issue. Also, the first two of Amendment 3’s three sections appear to closely piggyback on some of what Clean Missouri already sought to do, including “ban gifts from paid lobbyists to legislators and their employees” and “reduce legislative campaign contribution limits.”

The third section is the meat of the issue, where Amendment 3 asks voters to “change the redistricting process voters approved in 2018 [by] transferring responsibility for drawing state legislative districts from the Nonpartisan State Demographer to Governor-appointed bipartisan commissions [and] modifying and reordering the redistricting criteria.”

The measure has Clean Missouri backers back on the campaign trail, this time urging a “no” vote on what they’ve termed “Dirty Missouri” and “a deceptive plan to rig the maps” that dictate the state’s House and Senate districts.

Meanwhile, Amendment 3’s proponents have argued Clean Missouri “isn’t about fairness but about helping Democrats.”

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Sarah Fenske talked with guests on both sides of this debate. Missouri state Sen. Bob Onder, R-St. Charles County, shared his perspective as a lawmaker in favor of Amendment 3, and Sean Soendker Nicholson, campaign director for Clean Missouri, offered his opposing take on the issue.

Onder started things off by explaining why he and other Missouri lawmakers are pushing to overturn the new redistricting system even before it’s gone into effect.

“In 2018, Missouri voters were presented with a ballot initiative and a number of ethics reforms that they wholeheartedly supported and understood: lifting lobbyist gifts, campaign finance limits, ending the revolving door between legislating and lobbying,” the senator said, “and a very arcane, very odd way of drawing legislative districts that included weird things like formulas about partisan electoral performance and wasted votes.

“And that redistricting scheme is what out-of-state special interest and dark-money groups wanted. And they spent millions of dollars to essentially buy a constitutional amendment. And the fact is polling right before the election showed only 36% of Missouri voters understood and supported the redistricting part of Clean Missouri, but voters supported the rest of it, and they understood it, and they passed it by a large margin.”

Nicholson disputed the idea that 2018 voters didn’t understand the redistricting part of Clean Missouri.

“The very first bullet on every single petition that was circulated for two years said that this is about redistricting,” Nicholson said. “The very first bullet on every single ballot in November of 2018 said that this was about redistricting. And voters approved those redistricting reforms by a 2-1 margin because it was good policy that was vetted and had bipartisan support from around the state.”

During the show, Onder called the nonpartisan state demographer under the Clean Missouri system a “single, hyperpartisan bureaucrat, a redistricting czar” — a description that Nicholson argued doesn’t line up with the “multistep process with checks and balances” that the Clean Missouri redistricting plan involves.

“The demographer prepares draft plans and presents them to commissions that existed before Clean Missouri [and] existed after Clean Missouri passed,” Nicholson said.

The two guests also sparred over how population is determined under Clean Missouri versus Amendment 3 approaches to redistricting.

“Missouri has drawn legislative district maps counting everyone since at least the state constitution of 1875. Every state in America counts everyone,” Nicholson said. “But Amendment 3 seeks to change that and use this vague, confusing language about ‘maps shall be drawn on the basis of one person, one vote.’ … They are trying to draw maps based on the eligible voter population of the state, not the total population.”

Onder described this as “a ridiculous claim.”

“What this mandate in the 2018 [Clean Missouri] amendment about total population would mandate is that we would count illegal immigrants in drawing maps,” the senator said, “and this is inappropriate.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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