Elaine C. Kamarck is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of “Primary Politics: Everything You Need to Know About How America Nominates Its Presidential Candidates.”
Missouri voters on Election Day last month outdid their fellow citizens in venting their frustration with America’s political system. They voted overwhelmingly, 62 percent to 38 percent, to approve one of the most radical systems for redistricting state legislative seats ever enacted. It places the power to draw state legislative (but not congressional) district lines in the hands of a newly appointed position: the state demographer.
Until now, reform of the U.S. redistricting process has mainly consisted of creating independent commissions to draw legislative lines. This year alone, four other states — Colorado, Michigan, Ohio and Utah — did just that, bringing the total number of states using some version of an independent commission to redistrict to 11.
But Missouri’s reform initiative took a new and previously untested route by creating the position of a nonpartisan state demographer who will be nominated by the state auditor and approved by the state Senate. The state demographer will draw the district lines and submit the plan to one commission for the state Senate, consisting of 10 members, and another commission for the House, consisting of 16 members. The commissioners will be evenly split between the two political parties.
There are two remarkable aspects to the new Missouri system. The first is the extent to which what has always been a fundamentally political process has been outsourced to a powerful technocrat who gets the last word. The new state demographer will be appointed for a five-year term. If the majority leader and the minority leader of the Senate cannot agree on who that person should be, they can remove a third of the applicants from the list and then hold a lottery to choose among the remaining applicants. Rejecting the state demographer’s map will require a super majority in each commission, and failure to muster the votes to overrule will make the demographer’s map law.
The second remarkable aspect of the new law is how it sets up a potential conflict between partisan balance and physical contiguity. Some other states’ reforms mention competitiveness, but in Missouri’s, it is paramount, “Districts shall be established in a manner that achieves both partisan fairness and, secondarily, competitiveness.” The law sets out how the demographer should do this and requires him or her to simulate elections under the new map to minimize “wasted votes.” (Wasted votes are the votes for a winning candidate above 50 percent.) Following the sections on partisan balance is a section calling for contiguous districts, but they are “subject to the requirements of subdivisions (1)(a) and (1)(b) which call for partisan fairness and competitiveness.”
It is thus possible, as some Missouri Republicans have pointed out, that to get Democratic and Republican votes in roughly equal numbers, a piece of a big city may have to be awkwardly tacked on to a rural district. The irony is that legislation designed to eliminate the weirdly shaped districts that were responsible for the term “gerrymander” in the first place could end up creating other weirdly shaped districts albeit ones with more partisan balance.
Missouri’s Amendment 1 illustrates just how fed up many citizens are with politicians writing the rules for their own reelection. The success of the Republican “Redmap” project, which targeted state legislative seats at the beginning of this decade with the goal of constructing a Republican “firewall” through the redistricting process, has violated voters’ sense of fairness. There is a new and vibrant citizen activism around the topic of gerrymandering. Missourians, sick of scandals and politicians’ perceived self-dealing, have gone far down the road of changing how redistricting is done, yielding the political task to a technocrat with a computer.
But even technocrats with computers will find it difficult to draw truly competitive districts in a period in history when Americans tend to live with people like them. It’s not easy to find a Republican in Manhattan. President Trump didn’t even carry his own precinct. And it’s not easy to find a Democrat in Amarillo, Tex. While the theory made famous by journalist Bill Bishop in his 2008 book “The Big Sort” should not be used to give up on redistricting reform (Democrats probably picked up four or more seats in Pennsylvania because of new district lines), there will be limits to the number of competitive seats that can be drawn.
Missouri’s new law and new demographer, whoever it may be, will be on the front lines trying to implement a new mandate that will be closely watched everywhere.