116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Iowa’s decennial legislative redistricting is underway with the long-awaited release of new U.S. census data. We hope the outcome is fair and nonpartisan, just like it’s been for the past 40 years.
Given the pandemic-related delay in sending out population figures, the Iowa Legislature is expected to miss its Sept. 15 deadline for approving new maps for state legislative districts. Under the state Constitution, redistricting authority would go to the Iowa Supreme Court.
We probably won’t know what the court will do until the deadline passes. Justices could take on the process themselves or perhaps let legislators play their traditional role of voting on a map produced by legislative staff.
If the Supreme Court ends up taking charge, we expect them to rely on the Legislative Services Agency, which has a strong track record of nonpartisan redistricting over the last four 10-year cycles. If legislators are tasked with approving maps, we urge them to adopt one drawn by legislative staff, with no amendments from elected officials.
It wouldn’t be totally out of character for them to pull an autumn switcheroo on the voters.
In the usual realignment procedure, the Legislative Services Agency draws up a map under a set of rules meant to root out political favoritism. Lawmakers then take an up-or-down vote. If the first map is rejected, the process repeats. If it’s voted down again, the third map can be amended by legislators.
There in the third map lies the potential for mischief. The party in power could redraw lines to its own benefit, a tactic known as gerrymandering whereby politicians pick their voters, instead of the other way around. Lawmakers in other states use it to tilt the map in their favor.
Lawmakers in the Republican majority are adamant that they have no plans to alter Iowa’s celebrated nonpartisan redistricting process, and to their credit they have made no legislative overtures to that end. But rejecting the professionally drawn up maps and replacing them with their own amended design would fall within the existing process and it still would be a very bad idea.
In other words, legislators could abide by the system while still making a politically opportunistic mess of things.
One can hardly blame critics for their anxiety over what Republicans — who hold the governorship and healthy majorities in both legislative chambers — will do with the map. Under one-party control, they have codified several changes to election law that we see as bald attempts to game the system in their favor. It wouldn’t be totally out of character for them to pull an autumn switcheroo on the voters.
They should see that unbiased redistricting is not only good government, it’s also good politics, if Iowa history is any indication.
Iowa’s redistricting process, which is recognized as one of the best in the nation at mitigating partisan influence, is the product of a legal dispute during the 1971 decennial realignment. After lawmakers were accused of making districts with disparate populations in order to protect incumbents, the Iowa Supreme Court took over and drafted its own map, ruling that the legislators’ version violated the principle of one person, one vote.
In the following few years, half the lawmakers who supported the skewed map were either voted out or retired from the Legislature, according to guest columnist Roger Munns, a former Gazette and Associated Press reporter. There was a political price to pay for their protectionist ploy.
Among all the dirty tricks politicians play, few stoke distrust of the political system the way gerrymandering does. The scheme is so infamous and politicians are so widely recognized as crooked that some citizens just assume Iowa’s districts are rigged to boost Republicans. They’re not, at least for now.
Iowa Republicans have managed to put political and demographic winds at their backs to achieve great electoral success in recent years. That already was the trend before they enacted laws to require voter ID, make it harder for third-party candidates to get on the ballot and limit access to early and absentee voting. Even if you’re a conniving partisan cynic, it’s hard to see what the benefit of those policies is.
In a state where one party already controls the levers of government power, the only thing to be gained from gerrymandering is public outrage and discontent.
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