Will Missouri GOPers Be First To Pounce On Trump’s Census Citizenship Gambit?

Missouri state capitol building in Jefferson City. (Photo by: Visions of America/UIG via Getty Images)
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State-level Republicans are pouncing on the Trump administration’s move to add a citizenship question to the Census as a way to boost their electoral advantage in the next round of redistricting.

Missouri Republicans last week advanced a measure that would put on November’s ballot a constitutional amendment to require state legislative districts to be drawn using the number of citizens, rather than total population. Two Republicans defected from the otherwise 90-34 party line House vote.

Asked during a Friday floor debate over how Missouri would implement the requirement, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Dean Plocher (R), pointed specifically to the fact that the citizenship question will be on the next Census.

“We hope, we expect, I expect to have that question on there,” Plocher said, when Rep. Pat Conway (D) brought up the possibility that the citizenship question, which faces numerous lawsuits, might not ultimately make it to the decennial survey.

Separately, a bill in Nebraska that also would draw districts based on citizens was introduced in January by a Republican lawmaker but did not get far.

Critics of the move see it as aimed at shrinking the political power of urban and immigrant communities, who will see fewer districts drawn to the represent their populations if number of citizens rather than total population provides the basis of the maps.

They also see the Missouri measure as a way to undermine a separate ballot initiative known as “Clean Missouri,” which aims to make it harder to gerrymander and reduce the influence of money in state politics. Clean Missouri would tap a “non-partisan state demographer” to draw legislative maps, while imposing various restrictions on lobbying in the state and on campaign contributions.

Clean Missouri is the result of a petition-drive that collected nearly 347,000 signatures. It has bipartisan support, but is still vehemently opposed by many Republicans in the statehouse.

The Clean Missouri campaign in a statement called Plocher’s citizen-based redistricting bill “an attempt to confuse voters and undermine the mandate from 346,956 Missourians who are ready to increase ethics, accountability and transparency in Jefferson City.”

Before it makes it to the ballot, the GOP-backed citizen-based redistricting proposal must first pass the Senate. Critics of the bill weren’t sure of its chances, given how much work Missouri’s Senate has to do in its last week in session.

The ACLU-Missouri opposes the GOP measure, as do various immigrant rights groups in the state.

“We anticipate that, the same way that it was fast-tracked in the House, it will be fast-tracked in the Senate,” Caroline Fan, the executive director of Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates, told TPM.

The desire by Republicans to draw legislative districts based on number of citizens rather than total population has simmered on the fringes for years. But it was thrust front-and-center by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s March decision to add the citizenship question to the 2020 Census, despite it being very late in the planning process and over the objection of Censes experts. The Trump administration said the move was in response to a Justice Department request for more data for Voting Rights Act enforcement.

But civil rights advocates fear that it will spook immigrant communities from participating in the Census, creating an undercount that would shift political power and federal funding away from those populations. Election law observers also have raised the possibility that the new citizenship data could lead some states to switch to drawing state legislative districts based on citizenship rather than population, as the Missouri measure would do.

The Justice Department has declined to comment when asked by TPM if it favors states taking that approach. But the DOJ request that Census add the question, emails obtained by ProPublica revealed, was spearheaded by Trump’s acting Civil Rights chief John Gore, who previously represented Republicans in redistricting cases. Christopher Stanley — a former aide to ex-Sen. David Vitter — has quietly joined the Census, ProPublica reported. While in the Senate, Vitter pushed measures to add a citizenship question on the Census in part because he sought to change the way legislative districts were drawn.

The issue also came up in a recent Supreme Court case where the challengers sued Texas over its use of total population to draw state legislative districts. The challengers said the votes of voters in districts with a relatively low proportion of non-citizens were diluted compared to those in districts where non-citizens made up a relatively high portion of the population.

The supporters of the Missouri citizen-based redistricting measure used a similar rationale in floor speeches supporting the bill last week.

The Supreme Court in 2016 ruled unanimously in favor of letting states use total population. But concurring opinions by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, respectively, supported the use of number of citizens, and said another case was required to examine the question.

Among the counties in Missouri that would be most affected by a move to a citizenship-based redistricting scheme are those around Kansas City, Columbia, and St. Louis, according to an interactive map created by CUNY sociologist Andrew Beveridge.

Conway, the Missouri House Democrat who questioned Plocher on the floor about the measure, said in an interview with TPM that he had his physician, an immigrant, in mind in his opposition to the bill.

“She is working her way through the citizenship process and why shouldn’t she be counted as a person in my district?” he asked.

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