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Some black lawmakers concerned about Clean Missouri

Some black lawmakers concerned about Clean Missouri

April 23rd, 2019 by Staff Reports and Associated Press in Local News

Republicans pushing to repeal a constitutional amendment that revamped Missouri's redistricting process are finding unusual allies in some black Democrats in the Legislature, who are concerned the new districts might disenfranchise black voters.

More than 62 percent of the people who cast ballots last November approved Amendment 1, also known as "Clean Missouri."

A part of the amendment would change how state legislative districts are redrawn after the 2020 census. An Associated Press analysis last year found the new plan will likely improve Democrats' chances of winning more seats in the Legislature.

Most Democrats in the Statehouse support the amendment approved by voters in November. However, some members of the Legislative Black Caucus said they worry the change could dilute the black vote by creating new districts that spread out black voters into majority white districts, the Kansas City Star reported.

The Black Caucus has not taken an official stand on the issue.

Debate on a possible repeal is scheduled for this week in the Missouri House.

"There are definitely concerns in the caucus that the way it was written could create long, spaghetti string districts and dilute the black vote at a time when we have historic black representation in the House," said Rep. Steve Roberts, a St. Louis Democrat and chairman of the Black Caucus.

However, Clean Missouri's supporters note the amendment specifically requires districts to comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed discriminatory voting practices. It also says districts cannot deny or abridge the "equal opportunity of racial or language minorities to participate in the political process" or to diminish "their ability to elect representatives of their choice."

Jefferson City lawyer Rod Chapel — who is president of the Jefferson City and statewide NAACP organizations and treasurer of the Clean Missouri group that promoted and supports the amendment — said it's too soon to try to change the voter-approved amendment, based just on concerns.

"The people read (Clean Missouri). They understood it. They voted for it," Chapel said.

"Don't undo the will of the people. Good democracy is good for everybody."

He told the News Tribune on Monday afternoon that he's heard from people concerned about the effects of the redistricting provisions.

"Frankly, the politicians don't know how the redistricting is going to work, and whether that will be in their favor or, in some other way, limiting," Chapel said. "But I think the plain language in the amendment really takes care of that."

Republicans are using the divide in the Democratic Party to support their efforts to repeal the amendment.

"I fear — and I not only fear, I believe — that it's likely this is going to disenfranchise African-American voters in St. Louis and Kansas City," said Sen. Bob Onder, a Republican from St. Charles County.

Clean Missouri requires a new nonpartisan state demographer to draft maps for state House and Senate districts, with a goal of "partisan fairness" and "competitiveness" as determined by statistical measurements using the results of previous elections. Districts also must be contiguous and limit splits among counties and cities. The maps will be submitted to existing bipartisan commissions for approval.

Under the previous system, commissions appointed by party committees and the governor drew the new districts. Republicans and Democrats got an equal number of seats on the commissions, which were typically made up of lobbyists, political consultants and elected officials. If the commissions failed to approve new maps, the state Supreme Court appointed six appellate judges to draw new lines.

The new system requires that competitiveness be a factor in how districts are drawn, a big change from the previous method. The goal is a more even mix of voters in redrawn districts so that one party wouldn't have an advantage.

Chapel said Monday: "To the extent that they are not already crammed and packed I don't know that you, necessarily, create a situation where you take a seat that has historically been an urban seat or an African-American seat or a female seat (and) turn that into somebody else's seat.

"We're not going to do so some weird polka-dot deal (but) the intent of Amendment 1 is to ensure that populations are not absolutely required to elect one particular person."

He said he understands lawmakers' trepidation with the changes, but "the voters said they don't want to do it the same old way that we have been."

The Kansas City Star contributed information used in this story.