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Ashcroft tells Missouri lawmakers: Stop trying to pass a new congressional map

The Missouri Secretary of State’s office on Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021, at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City, Missouri.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft wants to use existing congressional maps for upcoming elections instead of the state legislature coming up with a new one before adjournment Friday.

Before he entered the Missouri Senate lounge, state Rep. Dan Shaul reached into his pocket and took out a mint.

The chairman of a House committee redrawing Missouri’s eight congressional districts was expecting to present a plan his colleagues passed earlier this week. He remarked, “It’s kind of ironic that we’re eating Life Savers.”

Shaul’s quip turned out to be prophetic: The Senate committee handling congressional redistricting gaveled in on Thursday afternoon and then recessed just seconds later. Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft called on lawmakers to abandon their last-ditch attempt to draw a map before Friday’s adjournment.

Ashcroft says there’s legal precedent for using the existing map, but others disagree.

Missouri’s congressional redistricting impasse has stretched on for months. The numerous conflicts include whether to make the districts more favorable to Republicans and how to change Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District in the St. Louis area. The House-passed map likely keeps the existing congressional breakdown of six Republicans and two Democrats.

Lawmakers are trying to push through a revised plan in the final week of session. But in an interview on Thursday, Ashcroft said passing a new map before adjournment Friday would create tremendous logistical issues for local election officials.

Specifically, they need time to move voters whose congressional districts change because of whatever map that legislature passes. Ashcroft says they would need to potentially change scores of people in less than a week.

“The concern is that you’ll get the wrong ballot, because there’s not enough time for the local election authorities to do the double-checking and triple-checking that we like to do,” Ashcroft said. “We like to be methodical and use a lot of checklists and go over things multiple times.”

Local election officials like Greene County Clerk Shane Schoeller have been sounding alarm bells for months that failure to pass a congressional map would present a logistical nightmare in the run-up to the Aug. 2 primary.

“There’s a lot of addresses you have to move any time you need to move districts,” Schoeller said. “Even if theoretically they thought they completed all the work, as I told people there’s no time to go and check the work. It would be like building a house and a family moving into it — but nobody ever inspected the home to make sure it was built correctly.”

Frozen in time?

Ashcroft contends that if lawmakers don’t pass a map, courts are likely to require candidates to run in districts that were created in 2011. That’s based on precedent known as the Purcell principle, in which federal judges are hesitant to make election-related rulings close to when voters go to the polls.

Other election experts disagree with that assumption, contending that having elections based on a map created 10 years ago violates prohibitions against having districts of unequal populations. They expect federal courts to draw what’s known as a “least changed map” that alters boundaries due to population shifts — but keeps the map somewhat similar to the current one.

When asked if he was worried about a federal court ending up drawing a map, Ashcroft said, “I’m actually not concerned about that.”

“The United States Supreme Court has been very clear that federal courts should not be required to draw new maps,” Ashcroft said. “Why? Because they’re afraid it will cause confusion and difficulties running the election well. We are at that point now.”

Ashcroft said he didn’t speak out earlier because, among other things, letters were sent to lawmakers in January outlining “the dates we needed to be able to close our voter registration system to make sure this went” smoothly.

“And I have communicated these concerns to the legislators more in a private manner, because I didn’t want to be confrontational about it,” Ashcroft said. “I know that leadership was told very clearly by the [county clerks] a week or two weeks ago it’s too late. And when it looked like it was going to continue, I had to stand up for the local election authorities.”

Ashcroft, a Republican, was a proponent of creating a map likely to elect seven Republicans and one Democrat — a proposal that has run into bipartisan opposition in the Missouri General Assembly. If lawmakers don’t pass a map, it’s likely that the end result will help Democrats — because either a 2011 map or a slightly altered plan would keep the 2nd Congressional District competitive.

“I think the data would suggest that it’s better for Democrats to stay with the 2020 (election) map and use that in 2022 than for a Republican-controlled legislature to make a more pro-Republican map,” Ashcroft said. “I want voters to know with certainty that they will be able to vote. They’ll know who to vote on — and their vote will count.”

Lawmakers are slated to adjourn at 6 p.m. Friday.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.