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Missouri Faces Redistricting System Showdown In Upcoming Election

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

States will redraw voting district maps next year using new population numbers. A couple of years ago, Missouri voters decided that a demographer should be the one responsible to do that for state-level districts, not lawmakers, not judges, not a commission like in other states. But this November, Missouri voters will be asked once again how redistricting should happen in their state. St. Louis Public Radio's Jason Rosenbaum explains.

JASON ROSENBAUM, BYLINE: It's the middle of May in Jefferson City, Mo., and members of the Missouri House are filing into the chamber during a pandemic-shortened session. After a prayer and some pleasantries, Republican state Representative Dean Plocher rose to present a ballot item that, if approved by voters in November, would do away with a state legislative redistricting system that voters passed by over 60% two years before. Plocher contended that Missourians needed another shot at deciding how their state legislative districts are drawn.

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DEAN PLOCHER: And along with my colleagues, I've done my best to express my firm belief that all of Missouri's communities matter, that our communities that we have sworn an oath to protect should be as - kept as best as possible together during the redistricting process.

ROSENBAUM: The Legislature's plan would do away with a system that's widely known as Clean Missouri that gives most of the power to an appointed demographer who must prioritize partisan fairness and competitiveness when drawing maps. Clean Missouri foes like GOP state Senator Dan Hageman say that plan would create narrow, unwieldy districts that deplete the influence of places like his rural Missouri district.

DAN HAGEMAN: And I think that they will lose their voice. Their voice will be diminished in this effort.

ROSENBAUM: Republicans like state Representative Phil Christofanelli like how a panel of appellate judges will likely be responsible for coming up with the maps, just as they've done in the past decades.

PHIL CHRISTOFANELLI: All of the horror stories you hear about how Missouri's maps were gerrymandered I think are undermined by the fair and nonpartisan approach that the members of the judiciary took in drawing Missouri's maps for the past 20 years.

ROSENBAUM: Unsurprisingly, there's been a lot of pushback to the Legislature's maneuver. Clean Missouri fans like the Reverend Starsky Wilson say a more competitive legislative atmosphere will create a fundamentally different legislature that will think differently on things like health care and education.

STARSKY WILSON: And so we've got to change the conditions in the environment in order to be able to advance policy that will be responsive to the needs of people.

ROSENBAUM: Other foes of the Legislature's amendment, like state Representative LaDonna Appelbaum, say that it's downright insulting that GOP lawmakers are trying to second-guess voter decision-making.

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LADONNA APPELBAUM: And this is what we're working on. It's shameful. It's a disgrace. We should be working on a bipartisan plan to help Missourians, not take their will away.

ROSENBAUM: The campaign against the Legislature's redistricting plan has been successful at collecting six-figure checks from labor unions and Democratic-leaning nonprofit groups. And there's reason for those Clean Missouri proponents to be worried. A summary of the initiative that voters will see on their ballots detail marginal changes to limits on campaign donations and lobbyist gifts before mentioning the redistricting overhaul. Opponents of the new redistricting plan fear Missourians will think they're voting on an ethics overhaul as opposed to map-making changes.

SEAN SOENDKER NICHOLSON: It's an amazing collection of bad ideas.

ROSENBAUM: Sean Soendker Nicholson is a Democratic political consultant who is leading the group to retain the Clean Missouri system. He says there's a lot at stake on November 3, primarily because Missouri will decide whether to retain a redistricting system that's fundamentally different from other states.

NICHOLSON: This is a better way that makes sure that there is more competition that protects against trying to do bad things in the future.

ROSENBAUM: Ultimately, Missouri voters will have the final call on whether to stick with what they approved two years ago or to call a mulligan of sorts on their own decision-making.

For NPR News, I'm Jason Rosenbaum in St. Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.