Senator Mike Cunningham

Of all the measures the Missouri General Assembly approved during the 2020 legislative session, I believe one in particular will have a profound effect on our state for years to come. Senate Joint Resolution 38 gives voters the opportunity to amend the state constitution and further restrict the influence of lobbyists and campaign contributors. The measure also will replace an untested method of determining legislative representation and restore a bipartisan system that has been used for decades.

In 2018, voters approved a constitutional amendment relating to legislative ethics and redistricting. Placed on the ballot by an initiative petition, that proposal was presented as “Clean Missouri.” The proponents of the measure – officially Amendment 1 on the ballot — included a number of out-of-state political action committees. Advertisements for Amendment 1 primarily focused on the ethics reforms contained in the measure – limits on lobbyist gifts, caps on campaign contributions and extending the length of time legislators would have to wait before becoming a lobbyist. The ads never talked much about changes to the way Missouri’s legislative districts would be determined.

The constitutional amendment that SJR 38 will place on a future ballot will impose even stricter ethics reforms. Lobbyist gifts will be eliminated entirely and campaign limits will be lowered even more. I believe the most important provision relates to redistricting, however. While legislative district boundaries sound like something only political insiders would care about, I believe they are extremely important and affect all of us. Good governance depends on local representation, and that’s exactly what’s at stake when district boundaries are drawn.

Before Amendment 1 passed, legislative districts were drawn by bipartisan commissions after every U.S. Census. Panels of 10 citizens, with equal numbers of members from both major political parties, defined the districts and held public meetings to solicit citizen feedback. The so-called Clean Missouri legislation changed this process. Legislative maps will now be created by an unelected “State Demographer.” This new process is completely untested. No other state gives a single government employee the responsibility of crafting legislative districts.

More worrisome, in my opinion, is the criteria Amendment 1 requires for drawing district boundaries. Previously, legislative districts had to be approximately equal in population, compact, contiguous and, to the extent possible, consistent with county lines. You can see the results of this framework in the district I serve. The 33rd Senatorial District consists of eight adjoining Missouri counties in their entirety. In fact most of Missouri’s 34 Senate districts – especially those in rural areas – follow county lines.

Clean Missouri elevates “partisan fairness” and “competitiveness” above the need for compact and contiguous districts. Under Clean Missouri, It’s now more important that each legislative district includes roughly equal numbers of voters aligned to the two major political parties than it is that neighbors and communities are kept together. In fact, geographic concerns are the least among the factors the state demographer must consider.

In my opinion, city folks tend to vote one way, and people who live in rural areas often vote another way. How will the state demographer create 34 Senate districts and 163 House districts and ensure partisan fairness and competitiveness in each? Assuming this is even possible, what will those districts look like? Will my neighbors in Marshfield be grouped together with residents of suburban Kansas City just to create a new district that affords partisan fairness? Who will represent that district? Will it be a legislator from the suburbs or one from the countryside? And how will the residents far removed from their senator feel about their level of local representation?

Clean Missouri will base legislative districts on how people are likely to vote, rather than where they live. In my opinion, this can only reduce local representation and diminish the connection voters have with their elected representatives. Supporters of Amendment 1 claimed they wanted to take politics out of redistricting. I believe the system they created is more political than the system it replaced.

In an upcoming election, voters will be given the opportunity to reconsider these changes to Missouri’s redistricting process. Do we want a single, unelected state employee determining legislative districts? Should local communities and regions remain intact or should they be divided and regrouped to create partisan fairness? Do politics outweigh communities? The choice will be up to you.

My time in the Legislature is nearing an end. Because of term limits, I am no longer eligible to run for office. When I go to the polls in November, I will examine this issue like any other voter. Local representation matters to me. I value community. I appreciate knowing that I may see my senator or representative at the coffee shop or county fair and can discuss issues with him or her. I want my elected official to know where my grandchild’s school is located and I want them to understand the importance of local industries. All of that is at stake and will influence how I vote when SJR 38 appears on the ballot. I think those things should influence your vote as well.

Out of an abundance of caution, Senate offices remain closed. Although we will not be available for visitors, you may contact us by email or phone. Please don’t hesitate to contact my Capitol office at (573) 751-1882.