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Judges asked to move quickly on state Senate district map

by Rudi Keller | February 26, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

Local election officials want new state Senate district maps as soon as possible, Greene County Clerk Shane Schoeller told the Judicial Redistricting Commission on Friday. But when the panel's public hearing was over, no one would say when it must be finished.

Computer systems that assign voters to particular election districts are locked until April 19, when certification of the April municipal elections is complete, said Schoeller, president of the Missouri Association of County Clerks and Election Authorities.

Changes can be made until May 24, when preparations must begin to order ballots so absentee voting can begin June 22, he said.

That period, he noted, "is also when we will be responsible for checking initiative petition signatures and canvassing voter registration rolls."

Late maps, he added, "in many counties will severely strain staff capacity."

The six-member commission, made up of two judges from each of the state's district Courts of Appeals, has until sometime in mid- to late April to file its plan. But on Friday, neither Gary Cain, redistricting project manager for the Office of Administration, nor Judge Cynthia Martin, commission chair, would give the specific date.

Friday's hearing was the commission's first, and perhaps only, public hearing. It is also the first time the commission, appointed Jan. 11 by the Missouri Supreme Court, has met in public. It met without notice to elect Martin of the Western District as chair and Gary Lynch of the Eastern District as vice chair.

The commission took over the job of designing 34 state Senate districts when the 20-member Senate Independent Bipartisan Citizens Commission could not agree on a plan before its constitutional deadline. The judicial panel has 90 days from the "discharge" of the citizens commission, but neither Cain nor Martin would say what date is the 90th day.

Cain referred the question to the commission and Martin, on behalf of the commission, refused to answer any questions about the panel's work.

"We are mindful of important dates for some of you with respect to our work," Martin said as the Friday hearing began. "We can assure you we are doing everything in our power to work deliberately, with dispatch, and yet carefully and in compliance with the law as we undertake the work we have been charged with."

In a statement released through Supreme Court spokeswoman Beth Riggert, the commission acknowledged it has a hard deadline to meet but did not name the specific date.

"The judicial commission is aware it has an outside date for completing its work pursuant to the Missouri Constitution, but it also is well aware of the practical implications of not completing its work before statutory deadlines," the statement read. "The judicial commission will make every effort to complete its work deliberately, thoughtfully and with respect for those practical implications."

A 90-day period from the final day for the citizens' commission to file a plan would put the deadline in late April, almost a month after filing closes on March 29 for the 17 districts on this year's ballot. Senators serve four-year terms, with half of the members elected every two years.

Only three other people testified, although the commission has received numerous written comments and map proposals through its web portal.

James Robinson of Unity-StL PAC asked the commission to be careful when drawing districts in the St. Louis area. He offered a map proposal for seven districts that would result in four majority white districts and three majority Black districts.

"Our interest is in making sure minorities are properly represented," Robinson said.

The other comments were from representatives of the League of Women Voters of Missouri, who asked for the commission to draw as many competitive districts as possible. Districts that tilt heavily to one party tend to elect people at the extremes of their parties because that is the electorate that dominates primaries, said Sharon Schneeberger, chair of the league's Fair Redistricting Committee.

"Without competitive districts, elected representatives have little incentive to serve the interests of their constituents," she said.

Of the 17 state Senate districts on this year's ballot, 14 are held by Republicans and three are held by Democrats. Since filing has opened, no Democrats have filed in the districts held by Republicans and no Republicans have filed in the districts represented by Democrats.

Of the eight Republican incumbents seeking re-election, five have already drawn primary challengers including one, Sen. Lincoln Hough of Springfield, whose opponent is charging he is not conservative enough.

In the written comments to the commission, the 10 Republican members of the citizens commission described its method for protecting minority representation in its final proposal and suggested it be adopted.

"In closing, we do not suggest that the (GOP) map is the only solution," the statement read. "After hours of work, its solution to the St. Louis City/County puzzle and its protection of minority interests are decisions in which we take some pride."

Democrats currently hold 10 of 24 seats in the Missouri Senate, and the mathematics of voting patterns suggest that is about as well as they are likely to do in the near future, Ari Stern, a math professor at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote to the commission.

Stern wrote that he, along with a team of mathematicians, worked through 100,000 computer-generated alternatives and found that while statewide voting would suggest Democrats should win about 43 percent of Senate seats, the geographic distribution of votes only suggests they would win 29 percent, their current share.

While Democrats and Republicans on the citizens commission submitted versions of the map that meet constitutional requirements, Stern said the Democrats' final proposal is more competitive.

"Overall, (the Democratic map) is by far the best plan at upholding partisan fairness in the terms presented by the constitutional language," Stern wrote.

Sean Nicholson, who led a 2018 initiative campaign that created a new system for drawing legislative districts but saw it reversed by a legislative enactment approved by voters in 2020, wrote to the commission that the best way to draw a map is to do the easy parts first.

He suggested that the judges accept the parts of the citizens commission maps where there was agreement, and then work on the areas where they did not.

"Solve the easy problems first," he wrote, "which then brings the remaining choices into focus."

He suggested that the judges accept the parts of the citizens commission maps where there was agreement, and then work on the areas where they did not.

"Solve the easy problems first," he wrote, "which then brings the remaining choices into focus."

The Missouri Independent is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering state government and its impact on Missourians.

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