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Senators lead effort to make Missouri's legislative seats more competitive

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 12, 2011 - When Missouri judges hold their only public hearing Thursday before drawing up new boundary lines for members of the state House and Senate, two former lawmakers -- one Republican, one Democrat -- plan to present a map that they say would be fairer than what's now in place.

"We're trying to get more competitive districts,'' said former state Sen. Joan Bray, D-University City. She and former state Sen. Bob Johnson, R-Lee's Summit, are leading an effort by a group called Let Missourians Decide. (Not to be confused with a free-market entity called "Let Voters Decide.")

Bray contends that the overwhelmingly Republican makeup of the state House and Senate reflects, in part, partisan map-drawing after the 2000 census.

Said Johnson in a statement: "We have crafted House and Senate reapportionment plans that, rather than seeking partisan advantage, are focused on creating more competitive districts, reducing the advantages of incumbency and building maps that reflect Missouri's true political character."

Bray said in an interview that the proposed maps dramatically redraw all 163 House and 34 Senate districts, with the districts generally drawn horizontally, not vertically.  Such boundaries tend to be more politically competitive, she said.

The new maps also renumber all the districts in the state, eliminating the current hodge-podge of scattered numbers. The numbering begins in northeast Missouri. "It was time to clean that up,'' Bray said.

The former senator said she would most like to see Missouri emulate the remapping in Iowa, where demographers draw the boundaries with the aim of keeping politics out of it.

"It's the least political in the country,'' she said. "I have long wished we would change our (state) constitution and do (map-drawing) in a nonpolitical way."

Bray said her chief aim is "to get away from drawing districts for incumbents'' or their designated successors.

It's unclear how the judicial panel -- which has said little beyond a news release -- plans to approach the matter. Some political activists say the judges have declined to meet privately with political groups, which some see as a good sign.

Under Missouri's constitution, the judges will have unfettered power to draw the new boundary lines, after the two bipartisan commissions initially charged with the task dissolved after failing to reach agreements.