WHAT OTHERS SAY: Dissent in redistricting case points the way to reform

Friday, June 1, 2012 | 5:03 p.m. CDT; updated 9:02 p.m. CDT, Saturday, June 2, 2012

The casual political observer who followed this year's debate over congressional redistricting in the Missouri legislature might think the battle lines were all drawn around U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis.

If you listened to the politicians talking about redistricting — including Carnahan — that conclusion was unmistakable.

With Missouri dropping to eight from nine congressional seats, some incumbent was bound to be out of what he mistakenly referred to as "his" seat.

Six Republican and two Democrat incumbents were all too eager to protect themselves while leaving Carnahan out in the cold.

But understand this: Redistricting never was about — make that never should be about — the politician.

It's about you. It's about the voter and his constitutional right to representation from somebody who will fairly represent his community of interest.

Unfortunately, both the politicians and the majority of the Missouri Supreme Court have chosen to place the interests of politicians ahead of the interests of voters.

Last week, in a long-anticipated decision, Missouri's highest court ruled 4-3 that the new congressional districts produced by the legislature met constitutional standards.

Missouri voters over the next decade would have been better served if the dissent written by Judge William Ray Price Jr. served as the majority opinion.

Instead, Price's wise opinion against the new congressional districts will be but a footnote unless Missouri voters eventually realize how important redistricting is to their role in the republic and pass a ballot initiative that reforms the process.

As Price noted, the problem wasn't in St. Louis, where Carnahan and fellow Democrat William Lacy Clay are pitted against each other in a primary, but in Kansas City, where lawmakers split Jackson County in an effort to create safer districts for Democrat Emanuel Cleaver and Republican Sam Graves.

"Abstract discussion of law cannot mask the obvious fact that the legislature has attempted to gerrymander a teardrop-shaped portion of Jackson County from District 5 and place it in District 6. Article III, section 45 is simply and clearly written. It should be enforced, not finessed in deference to an obvious legislative shenanigan," Price wrote.

The effect of gerrymandering is that there is no incentive for lawmakers to work together. Primaries in safe Democratic and safe Republican districts push elected representatives farther to the left and right, leaving voters in a general election no real choices.

The result is a Congress run by partisan pledges. Conformity to rigid ideology reduces compromise.

Gridlock ensues. Democracy suffers.

We have advocated that Missouri adopt Iowa's redistricting process. In Iowa, politics are mostly removed from the process. Incumbents routinely face each other in primaries because the nonpartisan commissions that develop district maps focus on communities of interest, not on protecting incumbents.

Until Missouri adopts such a system, voters will be denied the fair representation called for in the state constitution.

Carnahan complains that Clay was part of the problem because he endorsed a gerrymandered map, and he is right. But that's the wrong fight.

The legislature doesn't owe Carnahan a seat. He was elected 2004 in a safe Democratic district created by his predecessor in Congress, former Rep. Dick Gephardt. Now Republicans have returned the favor.

Missourians, for now, are stuck with a bad congressional map that protects incumbents and splits communities. Between now and 2020, when a new census starts the redistricting process anew, voters owe it to themselves to fix this inequity.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.

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