JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - A new map in hand, state Sen. David Pearce wasted little time hitting the road.
Less than 24 hours after a judicial panel released new boundaries for Missouri’s House and Senate districts, the first-term Republican senator from Warrensburg was headed northeast on the highways for an impromptu appearance at a Marshall Rotary club. Why the rush?
If he has any hope of winning election in 2012, Pearce will have to introduce himself to a lot of new people.
“Ninety-five percent of my district is new,” Pearce said in a telephone interview from his car. “So all the relationships with all the folks I’ve made over the last four years, I won’t have the opportunity” to continue those.
The new Senate district boundaries released this past week split Pearce’s home of Johnson County in two, severing him from the vast majority of the area that he currently represents along Missouri’s border with Kansas and instead placing his residence in a west-central Missouri district come the 2012 elections.
Pearce’s predicament in Johnson County highlights one of the chief concerns raised about Missouri’s new legislative districts. In several instances, the Senate boundaries carve up counties despite a command from the Missouri Constitution that counties are to be kept whole if at all possible.
Article 3 Section 7 of the constitution says that district lines shall not cross a county except when necessary to add people to a nearby district, because the neighboring county has too many people to fit into one Senate district. For example, because St. Louis County has nearly 1 million people, it contains more than one Senate district, and some of those districts dip into neighboring areas such as St. Louis city and Jefferson County.
But Johnson County has just 52,595 residents, according to the 2010 census which formed the basis for the new legislative maps. That’s less than one-third of the redistricting panel’s target population of 176,145 residents in each of Missouri’s 34 Senate districts. That suggests Johnson County in its entirety could have been paired with several other whole counties to create a Senate district.
The reasons why the six-member panel of appellate judges decided to split Johnson County into two districts aren’t known, because the panel deliberated in secret and insisted it was not subject to Missouri’s open-meetings law. The panel issued no explanation for the boundaries of specific districts when it released the new maps.
But there is at least one possible explanation for Missouri’s carved-up counties.
The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the federal voting rights act to allow districts to be drawn so that a majority of voting-age residents are racial minorities. In a 2009 decision, the high court noted that the federal voting rights law could trump a section of the North Carolina Constitution prohibiting counties from being divided to form state Senate and House districts. In that case, however, the Supreme Court said a redistricting map based on the 2000 census had wrongly split a North Carolina county, because the resulting district still did not result in a majority of residents being racial minorities.
Missouri’s judicial redistricting panel noted in its news release that its Senate map contains four districts in which racial minorities comprise the majority of residents. Three of those districts are in the St. Louis area. The other one is the 9th District in Kansas City, where minorities comprise 79 percent of the population.
It’s possible that the configuration of the 9th District contributed to the panel’s decision to split the neighboring 8th and 10th districts among multiple counties. The 10th District will now cover parts of Kansas City and its suburbs in Cass, Clay and Jackson counties. The 8th District also will dip into Cass County while running in a diagonal strip across Jackson County.
Those decisions could have had a ripple effect on the 31st District, which currently is represented by Pearce. The new 31st District will include part of Jackson County while also adding a few rural counties and dropping the portion of Johnson County in which Pearce lives, instead placing his residence in the newly redrawn 21st District.
Pearce called the county splits “just bizarre.”
Other lawmakers are equally puzzled or upset.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, said splitting Cass and Johnson counties “may be a constitutional problem.”
House Minority Leader Mike Talboy, D-Kansas City, also expressed concern about Senate boundaries splitting across various counties.
“It looks like those guidelines in the constitution were just ignored,” Talboy said.
Nanci Gonder, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Chris Koster, said the office would not comment on the county splits or other specific legal questions about the new legislative maps because of the potential for litigation.
St. Louis area attorney John Maupin was a Republican member of a bipartisan gubernatorially-appointed commission that failed to agree on a new Senate district map earlier this year, resulting in the need for the judicial panel to take over the task. Maupin said “some of these districts look a little odd,” but he added that he understands the difficulty in keeping counties intact within districts.
“If there’s going to be a (legal) challenge made, you won’t see the name John Maupin as a plaintiff,” he said.
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