As Ward Reduction Looms, New St. Louis Coalition Pushes Redistricting Reform
The year 2021 is shaping up to be a pivotal one in St. Louis politics — with both a new mayor being chosen and a new system of approval voting being pioneered. But the big shifts won’t stop with this spring’s elections: The city is also set to reduce its number of wards from 28 to 14, ultimately shrinking the size of the Board of Aldermen by half.
That reduction will coincide with the redrawing of districts nationwide in the wake of the 2020 census. And a new coalition, Reform St. Louis, has a vision for how the process should look in St. Louis.
The group’s biggest goal? To return redistricting power to the people, via an independent citizens commission, rather than having local elected officials determine the new districts as they have previously.
“This is a very important time to have this conversation in the city,” said Jami Cox, a volunteer member and chair of the group’s policy committee.
Earlier this month, the coalition began pushing out a survey to gather community input. Among other questions, it asks, “Which reforms should be included in future advocacy efforts, including a potential ballot initiative to amend the City charter?”
Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia, D-6th Ward, also a coalition member, sees such an amendment as long overdue, noting that the charter “has not been meaningfully updated in over 100 years.”
On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, both Ingrassia and Cox joined host Sarah Fenske for a closer look at how they’d like to see redistricting accomplished. They also discussed their hopes for reform at the municipal level.
“Just from a layperson and citizen’s perspective, I think St. Louis has seen a lot of change — obviously this initiative is one of them — but a lot of changes just with certain things that are happening in the city and the country,” Cox said. “And so I think in a similar vein to a lot of our peer cities around the nation, we want to find ways to make our government work better.”
Toward that end, she said, Reform St. Louis is, through its survey, gathering community voices and opinions about not only the redistricting process but the function of the Board of Aldermen.
“One of [those is] making sure that conflicts of interest are public and fully disclosed,” Cox added. “When alderpersons have personal interest in bills that are on the table, we don’t want those to sort of influence their votes — we want them to be voting for the will of the people and what’s best for the community and not for themselves.”
Ingrassia gave an overview of how the redistricting process typically works in the city every 10 years.
“Typically when the spring elections happen in a year that we receive census data from the Census Bureau, aldermen caucus before we come back into a new session,” she said. “We pick committees by seniority, those chairs by seniority, and the chair of legislation works with the president of the board to draw maps and negotiate with the aldermen on what ward boundaries should look like.”
The alderwoman added that while the data and software local politicians now use in the redistricting process has improved it, there’s been “little-to-no robust community input” as part of it.
“It’s still not really allowing us to make the best decisions,” Ingrassia said. “Even if we’re well intentioned, unintended biases are problematic. We really need to make sure that there’s an independent way, free from political actors that are reliant on the outcome of how redistricting works.”
Cox added that Reform St. Louis’ initiative would “take that power and put it in the hands of the community.”
“That community group, or that independent citizens commission, would be representative of the people of our city,” she said. “It would be diverse. It would represent people not only geographically but also racially and by gender identity as well, and just making sure we have a comprehensive picture of what the people of our city would want to see.”
“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.