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Despite census delays, Iowa Legislature leaders begin redistricting process

Former State Sen. Nancy Boettger, R-Harlan, studies a proposed congressional and legislative redistricting map on June 9
Former State Sen. Nancy Boettger, R-Harlan, studies a proposed congressional and legislative redistricting map on June 9, 2001, during Senate debate in a special session of the Iowa Legislature at the Statehouse in Des Moines. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Iowa’s once-a-decade legislative and congressional redistricting plan appears certain to be delayed because of U.S. Census Bureau holdups, but legislative leaders have started taking steps to move the process along.

Delays caused by COVID-19 and the Trump administration’s actions prompted the bureau to say Friday that it has again revised its timeline for releasing data the state will use to draw new maps for Iowa’s four U.S. House districts and 50 state Senate districts, each of which will include two House districts.

The census data will be made available by Sept. 30, six months later than its original March 31 release date, which previously was pushed out to July 30.

In 2011, the last time the Legislature approved redistricting, the process was completed April 14.

The new timeline means Iowa won’t get the data it needs until after its deadline for approving redistricting. If a redistricting plan isn’t approved by Sept. 1, state law throws the issue to the Iowa Supreme Court to finalize before the end of the year.

“The realities of the pandemic, the Iowa Constitution and the U.S. Constitution create a unique set of challenges” Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said Friday afternoon. “At this time, the Senate is evaluating its options on how best to proceed and the possible paths forward for the redistricting process.”

Representatives appointed to Temporary Redistricting Advisory Commission

Despite the delays, Whitver and other legislative leaders began naming their appointees to the Temporary Redistricting Advisory Commission that will gather public input about the redistricting maps. Although Iowa will maintain four U.S. House seats, the boundaries will be redrawn to reflect population changes as determined by the decennial census. Likewise, those population changes will determine the new boundaries of legislative districts.

Whitver on Thursday named Chris Hagenow of Urbandale, his law firm partner and former House majority leader, as his representative.

House Minority Leader Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, named Ian Russell, a Bettendorf lawyer, as his representative. Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, appointed Des Moines businesswoman Deidre DeJear. House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, appointed David Roederer of Johnston, who served Republican governors and recently retired as director of the Department of Management.

Democrats concerned Republicans will use redistricting to their advantage

In making his appointment, Wahls expressed a Democratic concern that Republicans, who control both chambers of the Legislature and the governor’s office, will use the redistricting process to their advantage.

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“Now more than ever, we need to ensure Iowans have fair maps for legislative and congressional districts going into the 2022 election,” he said. “Iowa’s nonpartisan, independent system for redistricting should not be undermined by politicians.”

Republicans also say they are committed to Iowa’s model redistricting plan, but Democrats worry the majority party will reject the first two plans in order to amend the new maps to their advantage.

“Iowa’s nonpartisan redistricting process is considered one of the fairest in all 50 states,” Grassley said. “With the delay in census data, we’re working with the LSA to determine what options are available and how to best proceed and ensure that we can maintain the integrity of our highly-praised redistricting process in Iowa.”

Timeline is up in the air

Regardless of political intentions, the timeline for finalizing new maps is up in the air. Iowa law calls for the maps to be finalized by Sept. 1, but legislative staffers say that might have to be adjusted because of the delays in census data.

“There goes my summer,” LSA legal counsel Ed Cook said when the Census Bureau said data would be delayed until July 30. After Friday’s announcement, he and his fellow LSA mapmakers may well be spending the fall creating one or more redistricting plans.

Grassley had advised legislators that the delays likely meant there would be a special session, perhaps in August, to consider a redistricting plan. Now, that could be pushed back to October or later.

“The Temporary Redistricting Advisory Commission will have to jump right into action as soon as that first map comes out from LSA,” Wahls said.

How the process works with submitted map plans

Within 14 days of the plan being delivered to the Legislature, the commission must submit its summary of information and testimony from at least three public hearings across the state to gather Iowans’ opinions on the plan.

Then lawmakers get three cracks at new maps. If they reject the first plan on an up-or-down vote without amendments, LSA has 35 days to draw another set of maps that address the reasons the Legislature gave for rejecting the first. If that’s not approved, the LSA has another 35 days to produce a third plan.

Unlike the first two plans, legislators can amend the third plan like they would any piece of legislation. That’s where Democrats are concerned Republicans could create maps that lock in their majorities for another decade. Republicans have called those fears “far-left fantasies.”

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Lawmakers have never been unable to meet the Sept. 1 deadline for approving a redistricting plan. Legislators leery of giving up control of the process to the court approved the first plan in 1991 and 2011, the second plan in 2001 and the third plan — without amendment — in 1981. Even then, the plans are subject to immediate review by the Supreme Court.

In addition to a special session being an inconvenience for lawmakers, the delay likely will frustrate state and federal candidates and political parties as they plan for their 2022 campaigns. Candidate recruitment and fundraising, especially for non-incumbents, is more difficult if the boundary lines are unknown.

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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