WHAT OTHERS SAY: Maybe a little chaos in Missouri election is a good thing

Monday, January 23, 2012 | 9:47 a.m. CST

Here's a simple rule of thumb to know when your legal case is in trouble: When your attorney stands up in court and refuses to defend you, things aren't going well.

That's precisely what Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster did last year in his non-defense of new congressional maps created by the Missouri Legislature. Those maps were created with one goal in mind: protecting incumbent politicians, with the single exception of Democrat Russ Carnahan of St. Louis, who was the apparent odd man out as Missouri shrank from nine congressional districts to eight.

The constitutionality of that new map has been called into question by the Missouri Supreme Court, which on Tuesday ordered a lower court to determine whether the districts are, indeed, "compact," as the constitution requires. The fifth district, in Kansas City, appears to be anything but compact, strangely combining urban and rural areas. That's why, in a previous hearing, Mr. Koster — charged by law with defending the state — said, "I'm not going to stand here and defend the compactness of District 5."

For voters, the stakes of this highly charged political battle are high.

Under Missouri's current system of redistricting, elected politicians and well-connected appointees redraw the state's political boundaries after every U.S. Census. Missouri's system, like those in many states, is tilted toward politicians doing everything they can to protect their own hides. The system breeds divisiveness by creating safe districts in which lawmakers have no incentive whatsoever to listen to independents or constituents in the opposing party.

Career politicians win. Voters lose. Every time.

In each of the last five decennial redistricting efforts, lawmakers or a committee appointed by the governor, or both, have failed to agree on one of the three state reapportionment maps that must be drawn, leaving the job in the hands of judges.

Judges don't want the job. No matter how they draw the maps, they will anger the politicians who didn't get their way. And the judges, too, make mistakes. Missouri's Supreme Court also rejected the state Senate map drawn by appellate court judges.

The one state in the nation that gets this process right is Iowa, where a nonpartisan commission of legislative staffers who understand the complex task produce the maps without consideration of politics. Without fail, the maps are a better fit for communities than the ones drawn in states too focused on protecting political turf.

Missouri, instead, is headed toward political chaos. If the courts ultimately toss the congressional map, as now seems plausible, the clock will be ticking on lawmakers and Gov. Jay Nixon. They'll have to find a workable compromise before the November elections.

If they fail, Missouri could be subject to a federal law last imposed in the state in 1932, forcing congressional races to be held statewide on an at-large basis. Consider the eight offices filled by statewide votes: five Democrats, three Republicans. That's quite different from the Republican-gerrymandered map in which six of eight seats in Congress are safely Republican.

Politicians or courts probably will reach a solution before such chaos reigns. But maybe one year of chaos, with truly wide-open congressional races, wouldn't be all that bad. It would help prove the point that should be obvious by now.

Missouri's party-controlled, gerrymandered political system is broken. Put voters first and fix it.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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