GUEST COMMENTARY: History shows redistricting will bring problems

Monday, February 28, 2011 | 11:57 a.m. CST; updated 10:12 a.m. CDT, Friday, March 18, 2011

The Missouri General Assembly in the coming weeks will engage in the politically charged task of congressional redistricting. The results of the 2010 Census make the job all the more difficult since Missouri is losing a congressional seat for the first time in 30 years. With the state's delegation shrinking from nine members to eight in January 2013, the goal for Republicans and Democrats alike is to ensure that when the music stops in this game of political musical chairs, it isn't their incumbent who's left without a seat.

Although Republicans enjoy overwhelming majorities in both the state Senate and House of Representatives, they can't necessarily run the table on redistricting since Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon can veto any plan he doesn't like.

If the legislature and governor can't agree, the likely outcome is someone will petition a federal court to draw the new districts, as was the case in 1971 and 1981. In the unlikely event a court wasn't asked to intervene, the default result would be at-large, statewide congressional elections, which is precisely what happened in Missouri in the 1930s before federal law authorized judicial involvement.

In 1931, Missouri had an all-time high of 16 congressmen — twice the number it will have in 2013 — with a partisan split of 12 Democrats and four Republicans. But under the 1930 Census, the state's congressional delegation was to drop to 13 in 1933.

According to an August 1931 article in The American Political Science Review by Lloyd M. Short of the University of Missouri, the main congressional redistricting proposal under consideration that year by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly was expected to result in eight reliably Democratic districts, four reliably Republican districts and one swing district with a Democratic lean.

Republican lawmakers unanimously opposed the proposal, but so did a number of Democrats because with the state losing three seats it would have put some Democratic incumbents into districts with other incumbents. As a result, there initially weren't enough votes to pass the plan in either chamber. The Senate, however, eventually mustered a bare majority by pressuring one previously absent Democratic senator into rising from his sickbed to cast the deciding vote.

With the House still unwilling to go along, Gov. Henry Caulfield, a Republican, issued a special message to the General Assembly condemning the Senate plan and presenting an alternative. However, Caulfield's proposal would have given Republicans safe majorities in at least nine, and maybe 10, of the 13 districts.

Caulfield's plan broke the legislative logjam, though not in the way he intended as it instead galvanized House Democrats into passing the Senate bill. Caulfield promptly vetoed it, but efforts to enact another redistricting plan during the remaining weeks of the 1931 legislative session went nowhere.

With no local districts, congressional hopefuls in 1932 were forced to run statewide. The at-large system resulted in a deluge of candidates with 56 Democrats and 29 Republicans running in the August primaries and the top 13 vote-getters from each party advancing to the general election. For voters, the at-large system meant that instead of voting for one candidate for Congress, they got to vote for 13.

All 16 congressional incumbents sought re-election in 1932 for the reduced number of seats. Although the four Republican incumbents all advanced to November, four of the 12 Democratic incumbents got bounced in the primary.

In the end, Caulfield's veto of the redistricting bill backfired for his party as Democrats swept all 13 at-large seats in the general election. Not only did the GOP lose, it lost badly with the top-finishing Republican trailing the lowest-finishing Democrat by more than 372,000 votes. In 1933, the General Assembly, with a new Democratic governor in office, enacted traditional congressional districts for the 1934 elections, and Democrats maintained a 12-1 advantage.

With the federal courts now the first line of defense if the state legislative process fails to produce new congressional districts, a repeat of the 1932 at-large elections almost certainly won't happen in 2012. But it sure would make for an interesting election year if it did.

Marc Powers lives in Columbia and works for the Missouri House of Representatives.

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