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Judge deems ballot language for Amendment 3 ‘misleading, unfair, insufficient’

SJR 38 would overturn voter-approved Clean MO
Missouri-gerrymandering
Posted at 1:35 PM, Aug 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-17 15:58:12-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A Cole County judge has ruled that the ballot language for Amendment 3 in Missouri is “misleading, unfair, and insufficient.”

Circuit Judge Patricia Joyce ruled Monday that the ballot language for SJR 38 “fails to inform voters that adopting SJR 38 would eliminate the legislative redistricting rules Missourians overwhelmingly adopted just two years ago to combat political gerrymandering and replace them with a redistricting process similar in substance to the one they just voted to abandon.”

Nearly 62% of Missourians voted for the Clean Missouri amendment in November 2018, but the state legislature began working to try and undo the reforms only three months later.

Within five months, lawmakers had largely succeeded in blocking or delaying the reforms, including an end to legislator immunity from the state’s Sunshine Law for public records requests, through the legal process.

Passage of Amendment 1, the so-called Clean Missouri amendment, two years ago was supposed to change the way legislative districts were drawn in Missouri after the 2020 U.S. Census by creating a non-partisan state demographer, who would be chosen by the legislature from a list of three candidates nominated by the Missouri state auditor’s office.

Instead, SJR 38 “repeals the post of nonpartisan state demographer” and keeps the redistricting process in the hands of the existing state commissions, which would be renamed. It would also add four new governor-appointed commission members.

Proposed ballot language for Amendment 3, which would overturn the Clean Missouri law and essentially revert to the status quo, played up two minor adjustments to the law passed two years ago.

The Clean Missouri law passed in 2018 banned lobbyist gifts of more than $5 and imposed strict campaign contributions limits — $2,500 for state senate races and $2,000 for state representative races.

Amendment 3 would eliminate lobbyist gifts, a modest $5 reduction, and reduce state senate campaign limits to $2,400, but it fails to mention that a “yes” vote would overturn Clean Missouri.

Joyce cited five arguments in deeming the ballot language proposed by the Missouri General Assembly and approved by Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft’s office, included below, as “insufficient and unfair.”

Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to:

  • Ban all lobbyist gifts to legislators and their employees;
  • Reduce legislative campaign contribution limits; and
  • Create citizen-led independent bipartisan commissions to draw state legislative districts based on one person, one vote, minority voter protection, compactness, competitiveness, fairness, and other criteria?

Joyce noted that the language is insufficient “because it fails to even allude to SJR 38’s central feature: the wholesale repeal of voter-approved rules for redistricting and replacing them with prior redistricting rules designed to benefit incumbent legislators.”

On that ground alone, Joyce determined the Missouri General Assembly’s statement “must be rewritten.”

She also took exception to the “false and misleading” statement that Amendment 3 would ban all lobbyist gifts, because state law still allows for unlimited gifts of unlimited value given by unpaid lobbyists and family members. The proposed law merely eliminates de minimus gifts of less than $5.

It also scarcely reduces legislative campaign contributions.

The proposed $100 decrease in state senate donations amounts to a 4% reduction and only impacts 34 of 200 state congressional races, leaving campaign contribution limits untouched for 83% of all state legislative races.

The ballot summary also falsely claims the new law would “create citizen-led independent bipartisan commissions” when the reality is that it merely renames and expands existing commissions, which are politically appointed and, thus, not “independent” nor “citizen-led” as most voters would understand the phrase to mean.

Finally, the summary statement makes non-specific claims about its redistricting goals, but fails to mention those criteria were actually passed as part of the Clean Missouri amendment and would be reduced for consideration if the new law is passed.

“Politicians may lie to our faces about what they're trying to do with Amendment 3, but they can't lie in what appears on the ballot," “No on Amendment 3” Campaign Director Sean Soendker Nicholson said in a statement after Joyce’s Final Judgment. "Everyone needs to understand that politicians are trying to trick voters by hiding a deceptive gerrymandering plan in the state constitution. The whole goal of their plan is to protect incumbent politicians in rigged maps drawn in back rooms by lobbyists and political operatives."

After Joyce’s ruling, the new ballot language will now read:

Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to:

  • Repeal rules for drawing state legislative districts approved by voters in November 2018 and replace them with rules proposed by the legislature;
  • Lower the campaign contribution limit for senate candidates by $100; and
  • Lower legislative gift limit from $5 to $0, with exemptions for some lobbyists?

Amendment 3 would eliminate other protections against gerrymandering voters passed in 2018, including a requirement that the state allow public testimony on the redistricting process, which is required by federal law after each U.S. Census, rather than allowing a politically appointed commission to divvy up legislative districts behind closed doors.

Clean Missouri also included enhanced provisions for ensuring protection of minority voters are represented and partisanship is stripped from the redistricting process in addition to requirements to follow existing city and county lines, when possible.