Fact Checker

Fact Checker: Iowa's political redistricting process stands alone in nation

Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks Jan. 18 after her inaugural swearing-in ceremony at Community Choice Credit Union Convention Center in Des Moines. She was sworn in as the first female elected to governor in Iowa, after previously serving as lieutenant governor and finishing Gov. Terry Branstad’s term following his appointment as U.S. ambassador to China. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks Jan. 18 after her inaugural swearing-in ceremony at Community Choice Credit Union Convention Center in Des Moines. She was sworn in as the first female elected to governor in Iowa, after previously serving as lieutenant governor and finishing Gov. Terry Branstad’s term following his appointment as U.S. ambassador to China. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Mirror, mirror on the wall, does Iowa have the fairest redistricting system of them all? Our Fact Checker team looks into a claim by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds.

Introduction

“We are a model for other states to follow. It could not be a fairer process, and so I have no inclination at all to change that.”

Source: Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds made the comment about Iowa’s redistricting process during a recent interview.

Analysis

Nationwide redistricting of political representation and voting boundaries will begin in 2021, following the national census. With that, concerns of gerrymandering — manipulating district boundaries to favor one political party — have picked up across the country, with states like Wisconsin and North Carolina recently embroiled in lawsuits over whether partisan politics should play a role in drawing state voting district maps.

What’s more, the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year ruled that federal courts cannot intervene in cases where state legislators have drawn political districts to benefit one party over another — which puts the onus of redistricting solely on the states.

So how does Iowa stack up when it comes to drawing political boundaries?

Iowa’s current redistricting process was created by the Legislature in 1980. Under state law, the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency draws maps for congressional and state legislative districts.

The map is submitted to the Legislature for approval, with state lawmakers having the ability to approve or reject the plan. If a plan is rejected, the agency draws and submits a new map.

If the third plan is not selected, the Legislature has the ability to adopt its own plan, which is subject to immediate review by the state Supreme Court.

The Iowa Legislature approved the agency’s third plan in 1981, the first plan in 1991, the second in 2001 and the first plan again in 2011.

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The agency is bound by rules including coming as close as possible to zero population deviation between districts and prohibiting the use of political data — which can include incumbent addresses, political affiliations of registered voters or previous election results, according to a 2018 report on the National Conference of State Legislatures website titled “The ‘Iowa Model’ for Redistricting.”

A clause ensures that each of Iowa’s 50 state Senate districts include two of the state’s 100 House districts.

The only permitted amendments to the agency’s maps are to correct errors in the agency’s submitted plan, the report notes.

The 2018 report noted that state legislatures were responsible for legislative redistricting in 37 states and for congressional redistricting in 43 states. The remaining ones use a form of advisory commission — often made up of members appointed by elected officials — for redistricting.

“We have a unique process. No other state does it exactly how we do it,” said Ed Cook, general counsel with the Legislative Services Agency.

Cook said much of the redistricting process is established in Iowa Code. He also noted the agency’s director is appointed by the state Legislative Council, made up of key lawmakers, and all positions within the agency are hired by the director or an applicable division director.

Cook said he’s had conversations with out-of-state groups like the League of Women Voters interested in the agency’s process, but said it’s difficult to know if any states have followed Iowa’s lead. Cook said the challenge is that Iowa’s process requires a legislative vote.

“There’s been a reluctance on the part of the majority party to give up that control,” Cook said.

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With concerns of gerrymandering mounting, several states have voted to take that decision away from lawmakers and give it to an advisory commission. Last year, voters in five states — Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Utah — passed measures to create an advisory commission or appoint a state demographer to make redistricting more transparent.

Last year, states like New Hampshire, Virginia, Arkansas, New Jersey and Maryland took up discussion on similar redistricting reform.

According to a March roundup by the Associated Press of redistricting rules in several states, many states that do not have state lawmakers draw up boundary lines operate with a bipartisan commission, with lawmakers appointing members.

Iowa is the only state listed that puts the mapping process in the hands of a nonpartisan agency.

Conclusion

Iowa’s redistricting process, which sees a nonpartisan agency drawing district boundaries, is certainly unique in a nation where many states operate with elected lawmakers drawing those maps. In the last several years, as concerns of gerrymandering grow, more states have looked to transition to a bipartisan commission for redistricting.

With that in mind, it’s easy to see how Iowa’s process, which has never been challenged in court since its 1980 creation, could be considered a model for redistricting.

Criteria

The Fact Checker team checks statements made by an Iowa political candidate/officeholder or a national candidate/officeholder about Iowa, or in ads that appear in our market. Claims must be independently verifiable.

We give statements grades from A to F based on accuracy and context.

If you spot a claim you think needs checking, email us at factchecker@thegazette.com.

• This Fact Checker was researched and written by Mitchell Schmidt of The Gazette.

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