MO GOP Won’t Let Pandemic Stop Push For Anti-Immigrant Redistricting Overhaul

Missouri state capitol building in Jefferson City. (Photo by: Joe Sohm/Visions of America/UIG via Getty Images)

Missouri remains under a COVID-19 stay-at-home order. But that didn’t stop GOP legislators who returned to the capitol this week from reviving a measure that would shore up their political power.

The Missouri House is considering a constitutional amendment that would usher in an anti-immigrant approach to redistricting. The proposal is packaged with several others that would water down an anti-gerrymandering initiative voters approved in 2018.

The House has until May 15 to pass the new measure, in order to put it on the ballot in the fall elections.

Since the so-called “Clean Missouri” constitutional amendment was passed by voters in 2018, lawmakers have tried to get on the 2020 ballot a measure that would undo its key provisions. But their interest in diminishing the political power of immigrant communities predated the approval of the “Clean Missouri” measure.

Since at least 2018  Missouri Republicans have tried to change redistricting so that maps are drawn based on the number of citizens, rather than total population. The failed 2018 proposal to do so came as the Trump administration was trying to do add a citizenship question to the census.

Changing the metric that’s used to draw legislative maps has been a longstanding goal of the GOP. Doing so “would be advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites,” as a now deceased GOP gerrymandering guru, who pushed for the census citizenship question, once wrote.

It would mean that parts of the country with relatively few noncitizens — i.e. whiter, rural and more Republican regions — would get more representatives while those with higher noncitizen rates — including urban, Democratic-leaning areas — would get fewer.

Missouri’s 2018 attempt at this overhaul proposed adding language explicitly to the constitution mandating that districts were drawn based on citizens rather than total population. Missouri Republicans failed to get the measure out of the legislature and onto the 2018 ballot.

Republicans tried and failed again in their 2019 session, as part of a broader measure to gut the “Clean Missouri” initiative.

But that version did not explicitly make “citizens” or “citizens of a voting age” (which could also cut minors out of the redistricting count) Missouri’s redistricting metric. Rather, the proposal mandated that districts should “be drawn on the basis of one person, one vote.” The current version uses the same language.

The measure’s sponsor Sen. Dan Hegeman (R) admitted at a House committee hearing Thursday that the goal would be to count only citizens when drawing legislative districts. He pushed back at the suggestion that minors — who also don’t vote — could be excluded from the count as well. Hegeman, however, struggled with questions about the legal interpretation of “one person, one vote.”

The current measure has a noteworthy change from the 2019 effort. Republicans removed language that would said redistricting would be done using data “reported in the federal decennial census.”  Some believe the change was made because since the 2019 push, the Supreme Court blocked the Trump administration from collecting citizenship data on the decennial census. The administration is now trying to assemble the data based on existing records.

If Republicans successfully get the measure on the ballot and it is approved by voters, the state could provide the test case for whether the Supreme Court would allow noncitizens to be excluded in redistricting.

The Missouri Senate adopted the latest version in February, weeks before the coronavirus outbreak hit the U.S. in earnest.  The return of Missouri’s legislature this week was the fist time it convened since April 7, and only the second time it gathered since the pandemic curtailed legislative action in mid-March.

The measure was considered Thursday by the House’s General Laws committee, which advanced the measure by a party line vote.

Hegeman, the bill’s sponsor, repeated several falsehoods at the hearing about the measure he is currently trying to pass.

He repeatedly claimed that it was about keeping “illegals” out of the count for legislative maps. Rep. Peter Merideth (D) pointed out that there are several classes of non-citizens and other non-voters in Missouri who are not there illegally. After a staffer ran up to whisper in Hegeman’s ear, he clarified that he meant “non-Missouri citizens.”

Hegeman also claimed falsely that “this was the first time that total population has been inserted into the discussion” and that “in the past, we dealt with citizens in the state being the counted and taken into consideration, not the illegals.”  Missouri has historically included noncitizens, including undocumented immigrants, in its redistricting count, and a 1875 amendment to the constitution said that apportionment would be done based on the “whole number of inhabitants.”

Additionally, Hegeman insisted that it was “well defined” and “well established” in federal law idea that the idea of “one person, one vote” meant using citizenship rather than total population for redistricting.

Merideth tried to correct him, noting that the question of using in citizens instead of total population has not been resolved by the courts. The case that Hegeman seemed to be referring, Merideth said, settled only the question of whether states could use total population. (The Supreme Court in 2016’s Evenwel v. Abbott unanimously said they could).

“The only court case that has addressed this, as we just talked about, said it could include total population, which is different than what you just said,” Merideth said,

“You’ve asked the question, I’ve answered it to the best of my ability,” Hegeman said.

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