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Missouri’s redistricting impasse is leaving congressional contenders in the dark

Trish Gunby, Democratic congressional candidate for MO-02, waits to speak with a prospective voter
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Trish Gunby, Democratic congressional candidate for the 2nd District, waits to speak with a prospective voter on April 29 at her campaign headquarters in Ellendale. Candidates in Missouri's congressional districts do not yet know where the boundaries will be.

Ray Reed really wants people in Brentwood to vote for him.

The Brentwood native is one of three Democratic candidates running for the 2nd Congressional District, which takes in a large portion of the St. Louis metropolitan area. After speaking to a group of Brentwood seniors in late April, Reed said he’d love for people in his hometown to cast a ballot for him on Aug. 2.

There’s just one problem: Reed has no idea whether Brentwood will be in the 2nd Congressional District, thanks to an impasse over congressional redistricting in the Missouri General Assembly.

“It’s really frustrating,” Reed said. “Republicans run just about everything in Jeff City. So it really kind of speaks to their incompetence that you have all the power and all the votes — and you guys can’t get something as simple as a constitutionally required congressional map done.”

Ray Reed, a Democratic campaign for MO-02, speaks to voters
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Ray Reed, a Democratic candidate for the 2nd Congressional District seat, speaks to voters on April 28 at Brentwood City Hall.

What happens if the legislature fails to come up with a map before the session ends on May 13 is unclear. Some have suggested that federal judges will draw a map that’s fairly similar to what’s in place now, which would have big ramifications for 2nd District Democrats like Reed. Others contend that it’s too close to an election for federal courts to intervene, which would mean candidates for Congress would run for office on an unconstitutional map.

Election officials are also getting increasingly nervous. Without a resolution, they’re getting close to missing deadlines in the run-up to the primary.

“Election administrators, voters, candidates — I don’t think anybody really knows how it’s going to work or what’s going to happen,” said Eric Fey, the Democratic director for the St. Louis County Board of Elections.

At loggerheads

There are numerous reasons why Missouri’s congressional map is still unfinished. Many of the problems stem from delays over census data, which didn’t arrive until the fall of last year. Other issues involve tussles over how Republican the map should be — and where to place specific military bases.

But now, the biggest conflict is over what to do with the 2nd District. A plan that the House passed kept it largely suburban, while a Senate plan included more rural counties. Lawmakers from both parties have strong doubts about whether there can be a compromise before the session's adjournment.

State Rep. Trish Gunby, of St. Louis County, one of three Democratic contenders for the 2nd District, said the impasse is unlike anything she’s ever seen or expected.

“I started serving during the pandemic,” Gunby said. “I thought that was going to be the weirdest time. We came back last year — still weird. We thought things would normalize. And I have spoken to people who have been in the building for longer than I, been around 20 or 30 years, and they say this is the most dysfunction they’ve ever seen.”

Ben Samuels on April 29 at St. Louis Public Radio's headquarters in Grand Center.
Jason Rosenbaum
St. Louis Public Radio
Ben Samuels on April 29 at St. Louis Public Radio's office in Grand Center.

Democrat Ben Samuels, who has raised more than a million dollars in his 2nd District run, said the uncertainty over which voters to court becomes more challenging without a clear sense of what the district boundaries are.

“Already in a congressional district, there are 750,000 people who live there,” Samuels said. “And if you don’t know what the district lines are, there are even more people you want to be talking to at this stage.”

The redistricting uncertainty is not just affecting Democrats. Republican state Rep. Sara Walsh is running in the 4th Congressional District, which takes in portions of central and western Missouri. In one version of the map, her house is in the 4th District — while in another she would reside in the 3rd District that Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer represents.

Congressional candidates don’t have to live in the district that they’re seeking to represent. But Walsh said the redistricting stalemate is forcing her to travel to more counties — even if there’s no guarantee they’ll end up in the 4th District.

“You work extra hard,” said Walsh, of Ashland. “So I’ve been getting out to the counties that are in the current 4th District, that are in the Senate’s proposed 4th District and are in the House’s 4th Congressional District.”

‘Least changed’ a likely option

There have been a number of lawsuits over the lack of progress in Missouri congressional redistricting. One is in federal court, while two are awaiting hearings in state court.

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft noted that the Missouri Constitution does not provide explicit authority to state judges to draw congressional districts.

“They don’t just get to decide we’re going to do something we don’t have the authority to do,” Ashcroft said. “I don’t get to decide I have the authority to just pull people over like I’m a highway patrolman.”

Ashcroft said federal courts do have authority over congressional maps. But he added that they may be hesitant to get involved because of what’s known as the Purcell principle, which is a legal theory in which judges don’t like getting involved in election litigation close to when voters are going to polls. He said if federal judges decide to invoke that precedent, congressional candidates would run in districts that the legislature created in 2011.

But Travis Crum, a Washington University School of Law professor, said the Purcell principle would likely not apply in Missouri’s case — because, unlike other states where that precedent was cited, the legislature hasn’t completed work on passing a map. And going by the 2011 lines would run afoul of constitutional prohibitions against having congressional districts with unequal populations.

Crum said that likely outcomes if the legislature fails to pass a map are that federal litigation would be successful and that a new map would emerge that would be similar to the current one.

“And the judges might do it themselves,” Crum said. “They might hire what’s often called a ‘special master’ who would come in and draw those maps. And the special masters who work on these issues, they are often able to draw a new congressional district map in a matter of days or weeks.”

Both of those outcomes likely would be favorable to Democratic contenders in the 2nd District, especially since voters there split nearly evenly between Joe Biden and Donald Trump in the 2020 election. And even though 2nd District Congresswoman Ann Wagner outran Trump in 2020, it could mean that the Democratic nominee could have access to national resources that otherwise wouldn’t be there if the district becomes more rural and Republican.

U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, speaks to supporters and media on Tuesday night. She defeated Democratic challenger Cort VanOstran in Missouri's 2nd Congressional District.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Congresswoman Ann Wagner, shown in late 2018, could face more competitive terrain if her district remains similar to what it is now. The 2nd District is the only congressional district in the state that's split somewhat evenly between Republicans and Democrats.

Tick, tock

The timeline before the Aug. 2 primary is making people like Rick Stream nervous.

Stream is the GOP director of the St. Louis County Board of Elections. He said without a clear sense of what the congressional map will look like, his agency is unable to provide much clarity to candidates or voters.

“The longer it takes for them to draw a map in the legislature, the more difficult it becomes to get all of the precinct splits out so the candidates and the people know which districts they’re in,” Stream said.

Jason Rosenbaum
St. Louis Public Radio
Eric Fey, Democratic director for the St. Louis County Board of Elections, and other Missouri election officials are increasingly worried about lack of progress on the congressional map.

Fey, the Democratic elections director for St. Louis County, also said that there are several hard deadlines approaching. They include a May 24 deadline for entities to put items on the August ballot and a mid-June deadline to send out ballots to overseas military personnel.

If a map isn’t finalized before that point in June, then it’s entirely possible for someone in the military to receive a ballot for one congressional district — but then a court draws a map where they’re in a completely different one.

“There’s going to come a point at which we have to move forward,” Fey said. “And whatever the legislature or the court is doing, it may be too late for election administrators to actually effectuate it.”
In the meantime, the major 2nd District contenders say that the redistricting mess isn’t changing their message or their strategy too drastically. Gunby said if the district ends up becoming more rural, her campaign “will just have to buy more gas.”

Wagner said in a statement she hopes the legislature can “come to an agreement and do their constitutional duty which is to draw a congressional map as they are supposed to do in conjunction with the census every 10 years.”

“I am pleased and honored to serve in any district that the Missouri legislature decides to draw,” Wagner said.

Samuels said Missouri’s redistricting woes should prompt introspection on whether the current process really works for voters.

“The craziest part about this whole process is no one even gives lip service to, ‘Let’s do something that’s best for the voters,’” Samuels said.

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