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WHAT OTHERS SAY: Redistricting splits Missouri's political personality

Friday, November 9, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST

Missouri’s election results offer a lesson in political schizophrenia.

At the top, the state’s voters overwhelmingly preferred Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, giving him 54 percent of the vote statewide. President Barack Obama got 44 percent.

Such a whipping normally would translate into big Republican gains down the ticket.

But it didn’t. “Normally” is a word that no longer applies in Missouri.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill actually won more votes, 1.48 million in total, than Mr. Romney. She led a near sweep for Democrats of the five statewide offices on the ballot. The GOP’s sole winner was incumbent Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, who won a third term.

Go further down the ballot, and the Republicans won again, reinforcing their Missouri House majority to a veto-proof margin of 110 seats. That’s assuming new Speaker of the House Tim Jones, R-Eureka, can keep his troops together.

So what explains the dichotomy?

Redistricting.

A year ago, we published a series of editorials titled “Fix the Legislature” that outlined the three biggest obstacles to Missouri’s elected officials working together to fix the state’s numerous budget problems. The three issues standing in the way are term limits, the corrosive effect of campaign money, and the redistricting process.

Each of those issues contributed to the strange situation, both in Missouri and in Congress, where Republicans control the lower legislative houses but can’t build the sort of broad coalitions necessary to win statewide or national elections.

In statehouses across much of the nation, Democratic and Republican incumbents have used the redistricting process to draw safe districts that protect their parties. The only fear most members of the Missouri House have is a primary challenge from a member of their own party.

So Democrats move to the left. Republicans move to the right. The business of governing gets done in the middle.

The primary path to winning a Republican primary for statewide office is to be an extremist like Todd Akin, who lost to Ms. McCaskill, or Ed Martin, who was trounced by Attorney General Chris Koster on Tuesday. They are the most prominent examples of Tuesday’s GOP failure.

In Missouri on Tuesday, there were 163 House elections, one for each district in the state. Nearly half of them were uncontested. In 74 races, voters had no choice but a Democrat or Republican. In three others, there were nominal opponents, either a write-in, an independent, or a Libertarian candidate who did little but take up ballot space.

Nearly all the winners, in both parties, were known before a single vote was cast.

Missouri House districts represent about 35,000 people. So about 2.6 million Missourians were disenfranchised by having no real choice for state representative. That’s just 100,000 people less than the number of Missourians who voted for president on Tuesday.

That’s not democracy; it’s game-fixing. This is the pure result of a redistricting process that puts partisanship first.

Meanwhile, statewide candidates have to fight for voters in the middle. They must appeal to Democrats and Republicans alike. Bromides about “liberty” won’t get the job done.

Modeling Missouri’s redistricting process after Iowa’s, where districts are drawn impartially based on communities of interest, would produce better candidates, in both parties. The end result would be more competitive races. The bonus, for glum Republicans in the Show-Me State, would be more opportunity to develop candidates who can win statewide races.

In Iowa on Tuesday, only 26 out 100 House seats were uncontested. That’s still too many, but it’s much better than its neighbor to the south.

As Mr. Jones, Missouri’s new House speaker, crows about his “veto-proof” majority, he should think about the long game. The governor’s mansion, and the White House, will continue to be out of reach for a party that spends its legislative days alienating women, Hispanics, gays, Muslims and anyone else who doesn’t look or think like them.

If Missouri House members spend all their time worrying about attacks from their extreme right flank, they may win the battles, but lose the war. That’s what happened on Tuesday. It will keep happening until Missouri adjusts its electoral process to give voters a stronger voice.

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


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