Our Opinion: Appropriate step toward openness in redistricting

State Sen. Jason Crowell is term-limited, so he can’t be affected, personally, by the constitutional amendment he proposed this week.

But the Cape Girardeau Republican is on the right track, at least as a first step.

Crowell introduced a joint resolution to require all future legislative redistricting efforts be covered by the state’s Open Meetings law.

We think the final version of his proposal — which also would have to be approved by a statewide vote before it could go into effect — should include all of the Legislature’s debates about congressional redistricting.

The problem occurs only once every decade.

After the U.S. Census Bureau releases its official population counts for each state, lawmakers’ district boundaries must be redrawn to reflect population changes.

Missouri’s Constitution requires the Legislature to redraw the congressional district lines, and it creates two, bipartisan residents’ commissions — whose members are nominated by the two largest political parties, then appointed by the governor — to draw the new state House and Senate boundaries.

The Constitution also requires the residents’ commissions to schedule public meetings, and sets a six-month deadline for them to finish their work.

If they fail — as they did this year and 10 years ago — the job is assigned to a panel of six appeals court judges who are appointed by the Supreme Court, and are required by the Constitution to file their maps within 90 days and have a majority (at least four) approve the final lines.

But the Constitution doesn’t require them to meet in public, and neither judges’ panels did.

So Crowell complained in a news release: “The judges decided to proceed in drawing the maps behind closed doors without explanation for the way the new districts were drawn.”

Drawing new political boundaries is a very political exercise — especially in a year like this one, where the state lost a congressional district because other states grew at a faster rate than we did.

And there are a number of rules that must be followed in drawing the lines, including keeping the number of people in each district as equal as possible, keeping the districts “compact and contiguous” and protecting what are called “communities of interest” (including those of minority groups).

Nowhere do the legal requirements include protecting incumbents’ ability to win re-election.

But the complaint always is out there, that the political party in power will work to protect its own future.

That’s why all the map drawing, and all the debating among the people drawing the maps, should be done in the open.

No matter how long it takes and no matter who’s doing it — lawmakers or residents’ commissions or judges.

Complaints about how this year’s judges handled the work may be valid — but they’re not the only ones who failed to have a public debate, and this isn’t the only time it wasn’t done correctly.

Crowell is right when he said: “The redistricting processes and drawing of Representative and Senate district lines are so fundamental to our democratic process that such activity should never occur in a secret.”

Lawmakers should take his proposed amendment, expand it to include themselves, then put it on next November’s ballot so the people can get a more open redistricting process in the future.

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