Former U.S. Sen. John Danforth

It is no exaggeration to say politics in our country is broken. The reasons abound, but high on the list is polarization — the vast gulf in goodwill and beliefs that now separates the two major political parties.

Missouri voters who want to do something about it have a chance on Nov. 3. They can vote no on Amendment 3.

The truth is Amendment 3 should not even be on the ballot. The Missouri Legislature put it there to its shame. Without it, many of its members feared their seats might lose their built-in safety. As a result, many of them actually might have to listen to the majority of the voters in their districts instead of only a portion of the members of their own party.

These sorts of changes have been on the horizon now since 2018, when Missouri voters approved an amendment to the state constitution that became known as Clean Missouri. If the voters approve Amendment 3, they’ll gut Clean Missouri, and we’ll be back where we started.

It is important to appreciate the context here. It is not as if Clean Missouri squeaked through. The voters approved it overwhelmingly — by a nearly 2-to-1 margin statewide and by a majority in every single state Senate district, from the Bootheel to the Iowa border. That’s a virtual miracle in today’s politics.

I was proud to support the Clean Missouri Amendment on the 2018 ballot. The Amendment changed the state constitution to “clean up Missouri politics” in various ways, but above all by reducing the role of politics in the way state House and Senate districts are drawn. The power that partisan and special interests have in drawing these lines was reduced in favor of a nonpartisan state demographer, whose work would then be reviewed by a citizen commission that must hold public hearings.

Now, however, in the midst of all the crises besetting our nation, our state Legislature’s idea of urgent business is to try to overturn these reforms before they can ever take effect. Instead, Amendment 3 would substitute a redistricting scheme more extreme than Missouri had in the first place. The result, according to the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, a nonpartisan group based at Princeton University, would be “a sharp turn away from representative democracy.”

Here’s why:

Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing the boundaries of legislative districts to benefit particular legislators, parties or interests. When district maps are drawn to benefit a political party — whether Democrat or Republican — the incumbents in these districts don’t need to worry about the general election; it’s already in the bag. So for these protected legislators, building coalitions, bringing people together and competing for swing voters are a waste of time — maybe even counterproductive. The party primary is the election that matters for these protected legislators.

Unfortunately, however, most Americans don’t bother to vote in primaries, so the few partisans who do call the shots. And those few, by definition, tend to be the most motivated, the most politically passionate — the most extreme.

The upshot is painfully obvious: Incumbents get pulled toward the extremes in their own party. The majority of voters —the moderates who make up the center of the citizenry — get ignored.

My own career in politics taught me how different it is when candidates have to compete for the center. I ran in statewide elections for Missouri attorney general and U.S. senator. And every time I did, every voter mattered, and every vote counted. If I wanted to win, I had to meet with all kinds of voters, hear their concerns and earn their trust.

That, I believe, is how it should be. Because that system generates leaders who represent the majority of their voters and who can work with other officials, who in turn represent the majority of their voters. That’s the kind of system, I might note, that produced the situation Missouri enjoyed for many years in the U.S. Senate. The state’s two senators — myself and Tom Eagleton — came from different parties but had a close working relationship. The real winners in the end? The people of Missouri.

You can forget that kind of situation, however, if Clean Missouri gets trashed in favor of Amendment 3. You’ll just see more partisanship and extreme politics than ever. Hard as it is to envision, you’ll see our politics even more broken than they are.

That’s why I am voting no on Amendment 3 and why I encourage every Missouri voter to do the same. The integrity of Missouri’s democracy is at stake.

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Former U.S. Sen. John Danforth’s essay appears courtesy of The Jefferson City News Tribune. It was reprinted in the Oct. 24 edition of The Missourian as a courtesy to our readers. Danforth, a Republican, also served as Missouri attorney general and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. He is an ordained Episcopal priest.