116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — The expected release of 2020 census information Thursday will start a dash to complete Iowa’s once-a-decade legislative redistricting process that will have a political impact for the next 10 years.
The population numbers are coming about six months later than usual because of COVID-19. That is creating uncertainty about whether the exacting process of drawing new boundaries for the state’s 50 Senate and 100 House districts can be completed ahead of a constitutional deadline.
“We know it’s certainly going to be tough to get maps drawn in a really tight window that we’re working on here,” Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said this week, “but I certainly hope that we’re able to have a vote on a first map before we hit that Sept. 15 constitutional deadline.”
Actually, the window is tighter. The Iowa Constitution requires the Legislature “shall complete the apportionment of Senatorial and Representative legislative districts prior to Sept. 1.” If the plan doesn’t become law before Sept. 15, the matter is turned over to the Iowa Supreme Court.
The court issued a statement in April that some read to mean justices might give lawmakers leeway beyond September to complete their work.
Legislative leaders say they’ve been told it will take the Legislative Services Agency 30 to 40 days to draw up a plan. In that case, House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, likely is correct predicting “chances are good that we’re still talking about having this conversation in late September or October.”
The legislative redistricting will begin a domino effect for Iowa cities, counties, school districts and community colleges, Secretary of State Paul Pate said. When the Legislature approves a plan, cities have 60 days and counties 90 days to redraw ward and supervisor district lines.
“So clock starts ticking and it just goes down the line” of political subdivisions, he said.
However, he added, those new district lines will be used for city and school elections beginning in 2023 — not this fall.
Although Iowa has completed congressional and legislative redistricting at the same time in previous cycles, the new U.S. House lines don’t have to be finalized until the filing period for candidates in the 2022 primary opens Feb. 28.
The political implications if redistricting also are uncertain.
Iowa doesn’t stand to lose congressional representation in this round of reapportionment, but changes in U.S. House district boundaries could make those districts more or less competitive.
Three of Iowa’s four current congressional districts are considered “highly competitive” by fivethirtyeight.com. The 4th District is “solid R” — meaning it has a “partisan lean” of more than 15 points toward the Republican Party. The partisan lean is the average margin difference between how a district has voted and how the country has voted in recent elections. The 4th is rated R+28.
The 1st District has a partisan lean of R+4, the 2nd District is R+5 and the 3rd, the only district represented by a Democrat, is rated R+2.
Adding a couple of rural counties to the 1st, for example, could increase the Republican advantage there. Likewise, moving rural counties from the 1st to another district could improve Democrats’ chances in a district dominated by Linn, Black Hawk and Dubuque counties.
“The obvious key to the political effect will be how the lines are drawn,” explained University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle.
University of Northern Iowa political scientist Chris Larimer expects there again will be a large western Iowa congressional district that is less competitive than the others because of a lopsided GOP voter registration advantage. The other three districts likely will be more compact. Whether they become more or less competitive will depend on where the lines are drawn.
Given the “national trend of deepening polarization,” Larimer doubts Iowa will see a change from the current pattern of “Democrats largely representing urban areas and Republicans representing more rural areas and districts, with very little crossover.”
Preliminary census data compiled by the Pew Charitable Trust shows Iowa’s rural population decreased 3.2 percent while the urban population grew by 9.2 percent. That suggests there will be more senators and representatives from counties generally represented by Democrats — Polk, Linn, Scott and Black Hawk, for example — and fewer from rural counties.
Conventional wisdom has been that urban areas generally represented by Democrats will pick up seats and House and Senate districts and rural counties represented by Republicans will lose them. That could diminish the GOP majorities of 32-18 in the Senate and 58-41 with one vacancy in the House.
However, to the extent the shift is rural Iowans moving to cities, “we wouldn’t necessarily expect, for example, Republicans to become Democrats,” Hagle said.
Based on previous redistricting cycles, one impact will be the number of legislators, either from the same party or opposite parties, thrown together in new districts, Hagle said. If rural districts grow in size, that could impact Republicans more than Democrats.
However, he cautioned that electoral outcomes in Iowa aren’t necessarily determined by Democrats and Republicans.
Statewide, Republicans have a plurality in voter registration, Hagle said.
“As usual it’s how the no party voters go that determines statewide races. Less so, of course, at the state legislative level.”
Also, the 2022 elections are more than a year away.
“Right now it would seem that those elections will be good for Republicans for a variety of reasons,” Hagle said. “If so, it might also bode well for Republicans in 2024 — depending, as always, on candidates, including the ones at the top of the ticket. That could mean that any seeming advantage Democrats get from redistricting might not have an effect until 2026 or beyond.”
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