A political activist who spent much of the past six years in the fight over how Missouri legislative districts should be drawn will be the prime witness in a case challenging the state Senate map.Thank you for reading this post, don't forget to subscribe!
Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem on Monday denied an effort to exclude testimony from Sean Nicholson, principal at GPS Impact and leader of the 2018 Clean Missouri initiative, as an expert witness on redistricting. He will be the only witness for a group of three plaintiffs who are challenging aspects of the map crafted by a panel of judges in early 2022.
The lawsuit asks Beetem to redraw the boundaries of five districts – three in northwest Missouri and two in St. Louis County – to remedy what the plaintiffs see are unconstitutional flaws. They contend that splitting Hazelwood in north St. Louis County between the 13th and 14th districts violates the constitution, as does splitting Buchanan County between the 12th and 34th districts.
If Beetem agrees, and changes the map, it would be used in the 2024 elections. The proposed map is unlikely to change the partisan makeup of the Republican-dominated Senate, but it would shift at least one candidate planning to run next year out of their current district.
Monday’s hearing on Nicholson’s qualifications was the last preliminary step before a trial, set to begin at 9 a.m. Wednesday. Beetem did not indicate Monday whether he would rule at the end of the presentations Wednesday or at a later date.
Lawsuit alleges Missouri Senate map hurt minority voters, splits too many counties
Assistant Attorney General Jason Lewis, representing the secretary of state’s office, argued that advocacy does not equal expertise in redistricting issues.
“He certainly is an experienced professional in the area of civics and campaigning and advocacy,” Lewis said. “That is not redistricting. That is not a redistricting field. Redistricting is a specialty.”
In response, Chuck Hatfield, the Jefferson City attorney representing the plaintiffs, said Nicholson’s personal involvement in the fight over how Missouri should draw legislative districts makes his testimony important to determining whether the map should be changed.
In addition to working on ballot-issue campaigns, Nicholson worked on the House map currently in use and helped draft proposed Senate maps that ultimately were rejected by the Senate Independent Bipartisan Citizens Commission, Hatfield said.
“I don’t think there is any way this evidence should be excluded,” he said.
Under the concept of one person, one vote, legislative districts are supposed to be nearly identical in population. And under civil rights laws, districts should be drawn to give minority voters an opportunity to elect representatives of their choice.
To meet those standards, and reduce political gerrymandering, since the 1960s the Missouri Constitution has required bipartisan commissions to do the work of redrawing lines after every census. When a commission, after being given six months, is unable to agree on a map, the job is turned over to a panel of appeals court judges.
In 2018, Nicholson and his backers successfully changed the constitution with an initiative petition they called Clean Missouri to make partisan fairness of the map a key priority for the commissions.
Republicans, upset with the potential for new maps that would challenge their supermajorities, put their own ideas for changing the process on the 2020 ballot and it passed.
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It retained the idea that the districts should show some partisan fairness but made it a lower priority than keeping counties and cities intact in the new districts.
Both Clean Missouri and its successor retained redistricting commissions and, when they could not agree, judicial panels.
The Senate map being challenged in court was drawn by the judicial panel. A commission that worked on the Missouri House map agreed to a plan and it has not been challenged in court.
The first priority, under the constitution, intended to “take precedence over any other part of this constitution,” is to make them racially fair. Another priority is that splits of counties “shall each be as few as possible” and that “as few municipal lines shall be crossed as possible.”
In court on Monday, Beetem said that what he must decide after Wednesday’s trial is whether the map proposed in the lawsuit is a “better map,” constitutionally, than the one in use.
Based on the 2020 census, an ideal Senate district has 181,027 people. There can be a deviation of up to 1% overall, and districts that do not cross municipal or county boundaries can vary as much as 3% from the ideal.
Counties that have enough population for one or more districts are supposed to have as many whole districts as the population allows, with the remainder attached to a single adjacent district.
It is “possible” to draw a constitutional map with fewer splits, Hatfield said in an interview. That makes the current map unconstitutional.
“We think it is a very straightforward case,” Hatfield said.
The lawsuit contends that the line drawn through Hazelwood as a boundary between the 13th District and 14th District is unnecessary, violating the “few as possible” provision and packing Black residents into the 13th District.
Only the boundary between those two districts would be changed under the proposed map.
On the western side of the state, Buchanan County is split between the 12th District and the 34th District. Putting Buchanan entirely within the 12th District, as proposed by the plaintiffs, would mean altering the 21st District as well.
Under the proposed map, the 34th District would include Platte and all of Clay County outside the 17th District, which is entirely within the boundaries of Clay County. The portion of Clay County that would shift is currently drawn into the 21st District.
The counties that would become part of the 21st District are Caldwell, Carroll, Chariton, Daviess, Grundy, Linn, Livingston and Sullivan.
In the court filings responding to the proposed map, Lewis wrote that “many maps” could be drawn that do not split Hazelwood or Buchanan County but not every map with that result “is necessarily constitutional.”
Republicans hold a 24-10 majority in the Senate, and the changes being sought in Wednesday’s trial won’t significantly alter the partisan leanings of any district.
Half of the Senate is on the ballot every two years. Next year, odd-numbered districts will elect senators.
The two St. Louis County districts are both represented by Democrats. Sen. Angela Mosley will be seeking her second term representing the 13th District, while Sen. Brian Williams, who represents the 14th District, won his second and final term last year.
In the northwest Missouri districts, Sen. Rusty Black, R-Chillicothe, won his 12th District seat last year and won’t be on the ballot until 2026. In the 34th District, Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, is barred from running again in 2026 due to term limits.
But proposed changes in the 21st District would put state Rep. Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs, the 34th District. Richey and state Rep. Kurtis Gregory, R-Marshall, have launched campaigns for the GOP nomination in the district currently represented by Sen. Denny Hoskins.
Richey’s home would be just a few miles outside the new district line but only residents of a district may run for legislative seats.
Richey made headlines during the session for his budget amendment that would have barred state agencies, institutions and contractors from having diversity, equity and inclusion programs. The amendment was ultimately defeated.
He thinks the district lines will survive the challenge, Richey said.
“It is not likely that a judge is going to rule against a panel of judges with a declaration they didn’t have enough information to draw the map,” he said.
He’s going to continue campaigning while the court case – which is likely to be appealed no matter how Beetem rules – goes on, Richey said.
“Everyone is going to be watching very closely how he decides that matter,” Richey said. “It will definitely have an effect on this Senate district in terms of its boundaries.”