116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
This is a peculiar and challenging year for Iowa's celebrated process of legislative redistricting. It's a good opportunity to reflect on what makes our system special and why it's worth preserving.
Redistricting is a decennial project to redraw legislative borders and account for population changes. The U.S. Constitution provides very little guidance on how to establish U.S. House districts, and says nothing of state legislative districts.
Throughout history and still in many states today, the process has been plagued by political opportunism and tangled legal challenges. Politicians in power often game the system to maximize their faction's expected performance in future elections, a tactic known as gerrymandering.
Forty years ago, Iowa established a new system meant to insulate the process from excessive political influence. Known nationally as the 'Iowa model,” it's seen as the gold standard of redistricting by some good-government advocates.
In some states, legislators lead the redistricting process, while other states have a special commission. Iowa has something of a hybrid - the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency uses a set of specific rules to draw maps, which the Legislature votes up or down. A separate bipartisan commission is tasked with advising legislative staff and organizing public hearings.
The system's unique checks and balances have served Iowa well for almost half a century, but it's resilience will be tested in 2021 by two factors.
For one, U.S. Census data for this decade is badly delayed, which is blamed on COVID-19-related data collection challenges and the former Trump administration's mismanagement. The lack of timely population data upends Iowa's and other states' timelines for drawing new district maps.
Second, it's the first time since the process was established that one party holds majorities in both legislative chambers. Pieces of the process prescribed by Iowa Code, rather than by the state constitution, are subject to change by the Legislature, although legislators say they don't plan to do that.
We hope our Republican governor and legislative leaders are sincere in their commitment to the Iowa model. But we have seen them introduce and advance major proposals without any meaningful public vetting, including bills on voting and elections. So, we remain a little bit uneasy.
Census figures now are set to arrive on Sept. 30, weeks after the deadline for the Iowa Legislature to approve new maps and six months after initial maps are usually available. Iowa's federal lawmakers are pressing Census officials to make haste, but since almost every state is facing a similar problem, we're not hopeful that Iowa will get a sneak peek of its data before September.
The altered timeline doesn't leave room for lawmakers to play their traditional role. The law calls for the Iowa Supreme Court to take over when the Legislature misses its deadline.
If it comes to that, which seems likely, the Supreme Court should rely on the Legislative Service Agency to do the actual mapmaking. That office is staffed with nonpartisan professionals with decades of collective experience on this very task.
We also hope the Legislature will lean on the Temporary Redistricting Advisory Committee as it considers what role lawmakers and the public can play in the disrupted process. That panel - made up of two Republican appointees, two Democratic appointees and one mutually selected member - is positioned to be the public's access point to redistricting. In an unpredictable year, that's an especially important job.
Whoever draws the maps and whenever it happens, the good news is Iowa has clear and effective rules for creating fair legislative districts and avoiding any form of gerrymandering, including:
' Convenient, contiguous and compact; no irregular shapes
' As nearly equal in population as practicable
' Avoid splitting counties and cities
' Political considerations - such as addresses of incumbent legislators and party registration data - are prohibited
With those guidelines at the forefront, we are confident the Iowa model will weather the unique challenges of 2021.
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