Will Iowa keep its proud tradition of fair, nonpartisan redistricting?

September 20, 2021 8:00 am

Other states are reluctant to follow Iowa’s nonpartisan redistricting process. But can Iowa avoid gerrymandering? (Photo illustration by the Kennedy School Institute of Politics, Harvard University)

Iowa’s nonpartisan redistricting process has long been held up as a model for the country, even though most other states have shown little interest in adopting it.

This year, Iowa’s much-heralded but little-emulated process is proceeding under two sets of unusual circumstances. The first, as has been widely reported, is the late arrival of census data, which affects all states.

Iowa was forced to miss a constitutional deadline for approving new district maps for the Legislature. Congressional maps have no constitutional deadline but are approved in tandem with the legislative districts.

The Iowa Supreme Court has taken a largely hands-off approach, simply setting a new deadline of Dec. 1 for the Legislature to go through its usual process.

Iowa may be under heightened scrutiny this year for another reason: A bill in the U.S. Senate proposes to require nonpartisan redistricting commissions in all states. This would be a positive step toward reining in gerrymandering, in which the party in power redraws district lines to maintain their own political advantage.

How it works

Iowa’s process requires nonpartisan legislative staff to draw the proposed maps based on entirely nonpolitical criteria. The most important one is to draw districts that differ in population size by the smallest possible margin.

Other rules encourage maps that keep districts compact and that respect boundaries of political subdivisions like county lines.

What keeps this a nonpartisan process is that the Iowa Legislature must vote the first proposed maps up or down without amendment. If the first map fails and a second map is also defeated, lawmakers can amend a third map. If lawmakers can’t approve a map that the governor signs by the constitutional deadline, the Supreme Court takes over the job of putting a new map in place.

Read more:  Iowa redistricting: Everything you need to know as the process begins

The Iowa Legislature has rejected the first map in the past, but it has never reached the point of either redrawing a map or turning over the job to the court. In the past, there has been a strong, bipartisan desire to uphold the Iowa ideal of a fair and nonpartisan process.

In the past, there has also typically been an equally strong motivation: To avoid a drawn-out battle over redistricting and end the legislative session. This year, the redistricting debate will be carried out in a special session, scheduled for Oct. 5. That may make a difference.

An important question for Iowans is whether circumstances have changed enough to overcome the state’s longstanding commitment to a fair, nonpartisan redistricting process.

I can’t predict how it will go. But here are a few observations from my 30 years of covering the Legislature:

Congress doesn’t matter

I’ve read some comments suggesting the first congressional map couldn’t possibly be approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

It’s not a GOP-friendly map, to be sure. It creates a super-blue 1st District that includes both Johnson and Linn counties. And it may give Democrats a slight edge in the 3rd District, where Rep. Cindy Axne is holding on as the lone Democrat in the delegation.

On the other hand, Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, who won her 2nd District seat by a mere six votes in 2020, would receive a far rosier territory under the new map. The redrawn 1st District includes her home county, Wapello.

If this map isn’t approved, however, it won’t be because lawmakers care much about Congress. In the past, and mostly likely again, state legislators will vote based on their perception of how their own district stacks up. They don’t give a rip if their Congress member is thrown into a race against another incumbent (which doesn’t happen with this map, but has been a consequence of redistricting in the past).

Looking out for No. 1

Here’s what really matters. The Associated Press reported that 24 senators and 38 House members have been thrown into a district with another incumbent. In the House, it’s eight Democrats and 30 Republicans. In the Senate, seven Democrats and 17 Republicans are pitted against fellow incumbents.

That’s a lot, but it means there are at least 26 senators and 62 House members who might be thinking the second map could be a lot worse. That’s particularly justifiable concern for the majority party. Given the size of the GOP majority in both chambers, any fairly drawn, nonpartisan map is almost certain to benefit the minority party. The continued migration of Iowa’s population to bluer urban areas only adds to that effect.

However, not every lawmaker who draws a bad hand will vote no. Some lawmakers who are paired with an incumbent might be willing to vote yes. Some have already announced plans to retire and simply won’t care. Others who secretly want to retire will use this as an excuse to step aside. Others will figure they can win or they’ll rent an apartment in the neighboring town that they’ll never move into, just to have an address in the new district. Voters probably won’t care.

The margin is pretty slim in the Senate, however. And House Speaker Pat Grassley is among those thrown into a match against a fellow Republican, Shannon Latham.

If this map isn’t approved, it will be for one of a few reasons. One is that 51 House members and 26 senators are willing to gamble that the second map will be better. That’s not likely, however, without some reassurances from leadership. And the most likely form of appeasement would be for the majority leadership to tell Republican legislators they won’t hesitate to take the unprecedented step of defeating a second map.

Gerrymandering can still happen

That’s where the concerns about gerrymandering come into play. Democrats are concerned about it, and not just for a sake of posturing. If the second map fails, the GOP majority in the Legislature can draw districts to suit their political interests.

That would kill Iowa’s proud tradition of nonpartisan redistricting, because it’s hard to imagine a future majority party would ever relinquish that self-serving authority. How shameful it would be if that happened as Congress was pushing the rest of the country into establishing nonpartisan redistricting commissions.

Iowans benefit from nonpartisan redistricting. The process alleviates the need for term limits by creating turnover every decade. It also would be better for the country to let voters choose their elected officials instead of the other way around. But if Iowans want to keep it, they need to speak up and make it very clear to lawmakers they won’t tolerate partisan gerrymandering.

The first, and perhaps best, opportunity for Iowans to raise their voices is during this week’s series of public hearings. The schedule, links to view the virtual meetings and to sign up to speak are on the Legislature’s website.

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Kathie Obradovich
Kathie Obradovich

Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine. She is a leading voice on Iowa politics and makes regular appearances on state, national and international news programs. She has led national-award-winning coverage of the Iowa Caucuses and the Register’s Iowa Poll.