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Feb. 14, 2024Jefferson City, Mo. |  By: AP

Missouri high court upholds voting districts drawn for state Senate


JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — A divided Missouri Supreme Court upheld voting districts drawn for the state Senate on Wednesday, rejecting a legal challenge that claimed mapmakers should have placed a greater emphasis on keeping communities intact.

The high court’s 5-2 decision means the districts, first used in the 2022 elections, will remain in place both for this year’s elections and ensuing ones.

The case was one of about a dozen still lingering around the country that challenged state legislative or congressional boundaries after the 2020 census.

Many of those fights have pitted Democrats against Republicans as each party tries to shape districts to its advantage, but the Missouri lawsuit has divided the GOP into two camps.

While a Republican Senate committee supported the Senate map enacted in 2022 by a panel of appeals court judges, a GOP House committee sided with Democratic-aligned voters suing for the districts to be overturned.

The lawsuit alleged that mapmakers should not have split western Missouri’s Buchanan County or the St. Louis suburb of Hazelwood into multiple districts.

At issue were revised redistricting criteria approved by voters in a 2020 constitutional amendment. The first two criteria say districts must be nearly equal in population, as much as practical, and must comply with the federal Voting Rights Act. The third prioritizes “contiguous” and “compact” districts, and the fourth requires communities to be kept whole in districts if possible under the equal population guidelines.

The Supreme Court said a trial judge correctly decided that the constitution makes “compact” districts a higher priority than keeping communities intact. The majority opinion was written by Judge Kelly Broniec, one of Republican Gov. Mike Parson’s newest appointees to the court.

In dissent, Judge W. Brent Powell said he would have struck down the map because it included a population deviation of more than 1% in the districts containing Buchanan County Hazelwood — diluting the vote of those residents while also failing to keep those communities intact. He was joined by Judge Paul Wilson.

The result of the Senate map is that residents in the challenged districts “are unable to vote in unison with their neighbors to voice the concerns and desires of their individual communities,” Powell wrote.

Attorney Chuck Hatfield, who represented the suing voters, said the ruling could have long-term implications for how districts are reshaped after the 2030 census.

“I think it’s going to change the way everybody thinks about drawing districts,” Hatfield said. “Whether it helps Democrats more or helps Republicans more, I’m not sure.”

State Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, a Republican, said he is “happy to see the court uphold the map and maintain the districts many candidates have already started running in.”

The candidate filing period for Missouri’s August primary elections runs from Feb. 27 through March 26.