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When Gerrymandering Backfires: District Oversight Gives All Power to 23-Year-Old Voter

by Shawn M. Griffiths, published

The Huffington Post reported Monday that an effort by business leaders in a community improvement district in Columbia, Missouri, to impose a half-cent sales tax without local residents being able to vote on it may end up backfiring.

Some quick background:

  • The Columbia City Council established the Business Loop 70 Community Improvement District (CID) in April to improve the area covered by the CID.
  • According to the Columbia Tribune, state law allows residents inside a CID to impose taxes and/or assessments within the district to fund improvement projects.
  • A majority of voters must approve the tax or assessment, but if there aren't any registered voters in the district then only property owners can vote.
  • Here's the thing, the boundaries of the CID were drawn in such a way that no registered voters were included in the CID, limiting choice to business owners -- or so supporters of the sales tax thought.

On Tuesday, August 25, the Tribune reported that Jen Henderson, 23, became the sole registered voter living in the CID on February 28, meaning she is the only person who could vote on the half-cent sales tax.

Property owners in the CID already levied a property tax -- essentially a tax on themselves -- that is expected to bring in $50,000, but reports suggest that the new sales tax could bring in up to $220,000. Though nearby residents can't vote on the tax, many in the community will end up having to pay it when they shop within the boundaries of the CID.

In response to the CID's oversight, Henderson says district leaders, including CID Executive Director Carrie Gartner, have contacted her to persuade her to unregister.

"Henderson said she doesn’t plan to give up her right to vote and feels negative about an increased sales tax — but has not made a decision about how to vote. Henderson said her concerns include vague project outlines, Gartner’s pay, Business Loop improvements she said will help businesses but not nearby residents and how an additional sales tax would affect low-income people purchasing groceries and other necessities," the Tribune reports.

Giving up her right to vote is essentially what Gartner asked Henderson to do. The CID was drawn in a specific way so that business leaders could decide the outcome of CID elections. Henderson's right to vote may interfere with the interests of the CID and its leaders.

For over two hundred years,

gerrymandering in the United States has mostly served one purpose: to protect the power of specific special interest groups -- whether that means political parties in state and federal elections or business leaders in community improvement districts. It has allowed these groups to control the outcome of elections, while diminishing the right all voters have to equal participation and representation.

Partisan gerrymandering is one reason why over 90 percent of congressional districts are not competitive nationwide, a number that could reach as high as 98 percent in 2016. Because general elections are not competitive in most races, elections in many districts are decided in the primary, an integral stage of the election process that is often overlooked by the media and excludes large percentages of the electorate in many states.

Allowing special interest groups to dictate how electoral districts are drawn rarely ends with accurate representation or equal voting rights -- even when there is an oversight. Now, instead of a handful of individuals getting to vote on a tax that others will have to pay, without letting these residents have a say (which is bad enough), that power is in the hands of one individual.

On Monday, it was reported that the CID has postponed a decision to hold a vote on the sales tax.

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