Gerrymandering disputes are reminder that Iowa is different

Pennsylvania's Supreme Court threw out the state’s congressional map on Monday, ruling that its districts had been unconstitutionally gerrymandered.  (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Pennsylvania's Supreme Court threw out the state’s congressional map on Monday, ruling that its districts had been unconstitutionally gerrymandered. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Numerous state and federal gerrymandering cases are placing the national spotlight once again on Iowa.

David D. Haynes, an editor with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, wrote last weekend: “Tired of elections that don’t seem fair? Maybe Iowa has a better way.”

It’s hardly the first time newspapers elsewhere have pointed to Iowa’s nearly 40-year-old nonpartisan redistricting process as an example of how other states should realign voting districts every 10 years.

“The Iowa model has been successful, with very little opposition, and at a fraction of the cost that we’ve seen in Wisconsin,” the editorial board at the Green Bay Press-Gazette noted last fall. The year before the Madison State Journal said the “remedy for rigged maps is Iowa model for drawing fair voting districts.”

When the Omaha World-Herald called for a 2015 redistricting revamp in Nebraska, they looked to Iowa’s “impressive” system. The Virginian-Pilot also pointed that year to Iowa’s process as “a better method.” Two years earlier, The Boston Globe said similar, labeling the Iowa process “a seemingly revolutionary concept in the high-stakes decennial rite of redistricting.”

Hopefully none of these accolades come as a surprise to Iowans, who have reaped the benefits of generally non-controversial redistricting and competitive legislative and Congressional districts. But with gerrymandering litigation pending in more than eight states, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s ruling this week that partisan gerrymandering violates that state’s constitution, it’s a good time to remember why the Iowa process is exceptional.

After every census, states redraw voting districts. Outside of Iowa, such housekeeping is done by elected officials, and often completed in a way preserves or extends the power of the party that leads the process.


Passed in the early 1980s and signed into law by Gov. Robert Ray, the Iowa method produces maps drawn by the nonpartisans Legislative Services Agency. The aim is to create reasonable districts with equal populations — with agency workers never considering existing lawmakers. So, incumbents have, on several occasions, been forced to move or face off in primaries.

While there are no requirements for competitive districts, the process as well independent voter registrations often result in tight races. As a testament, legislative control swings during elections between redistricting.

Iowa, of course, faces its share of challenges. As the state grows more ethnically and racially diverse, federal rules may require tweaks to our famed redistricting model. A majority party could reject three redistricting attempts by the LSA and take control of the maps, although that, thankfully, has never happened.

Iowans are rightfully proud that their nonpartisan process results in elections won by ideas. As recent litigation makes clear, it’s an national outlier that residents must vigilantly protect.

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