IOWA LEGISLATURE

Coronavirus likely to delay Iowa legislative redistricting

Iowa House Districts map, effective beginning with the 2012 elections. (Iowa Legislative Services Agency)
Iowa House Districts map, effective beginning with the 2012 elections. (Iowa Legislative Services Agency)

The coronavirus pandemic is providing Ed Cook some degree of certainty about what he’ll be doing a year from now.

“There goes my summer next year,” Cook said about an expected four-month delay in 2020 census data that likely will force him and other Iowa Legislative Services Agency staff to spend the summer creating a plan, possibly two, for redrawing 100 House and 50 Senate districts to accurately reflect population changes over the past 10 years.

It will be Cook’s third go-round with the redistricting process, and he feels confident that the Legislative Services Agency will be able to create a plan for lawmakers to approve before the Legislature’s Sept. 1, 2021, deadline. If lawmakers reject it and a second plan, Cook can see the process ending up in the Iowa Supreme Court.

Every 10 years after the census, the boundaries of congressional and legislative districts are redrawn to reflect population changes. Iowa is expected to maintain four congressional seats. However, Iowa House and Senate districts will be redrawn to reflect where population has grown and where it has declined.

Since 1981, Iowa has used a non-partisan process for drawing districts that is considered a model because it eliminates gerrymandering, a process politicians and political parties use to draw districts to their benefit.

In Iowa, the districts are drawn by the Legislative Services Agency to make each district as equal in population as possible. By law, the Legislative Services Agency cannot consider the political ramifications of the changes — how new district lines will affect individual lawmakers’ re-election chances or the balance of power in the Legislature.

Cook and his colleagues look at population estimates, but the final Census Bureau data is necessary because the redistricting plan “is so dependent on the last 100 people in each county.”

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Typically, Cook said, the Legislative Services Agency gets the Iowa census data in February, but because of COVID-19, the Census Bureau suspended field operations for 90 days. Now it is asking Congress to give it a four-month extension on releasing the results of the decennial head count.

If the data is received by mid- to late June, “it seems possible to at least go through two plans if we really kind of zip through it,” Cook said. “We’re going to be cracking to get this done.”

After legislators get a plan, the law requires a public hearing that can add two weeks to the process, Cook said.

That would give lawmakers an opportunity to vote on it by the end of July. If they turn it down — or the governor vetoes it, the Legislative Services Agency could present a second plan in late August.

If that’s rejected, “there’s really no chance of going to a third plan before Sept. 1,” which is the statutory deadline for the Legislature to act.

After that, redistricting goes to the Supreme Court, something that has not happened since the non-partisan process was first implemented.

The court has options. It could undertake drawing the districts itself. Another option, Cook said, would be to give the Legislature an extension to adopt a plan.

Legislators have agreed to either the first or second plan in 1981, 1991, 2001 and 2011. The court has not had to be involved. The prospect of the process being taken out of their hands has encouraged lawmakers to adopt one of the first two plans.

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That can come at a political cost. In 2001, the first plan would have thrown 60 of 150 legislators into districts where they faced another incumbent. That was rejected, but the plan they adopted threw Republican U.S. Reps. Jim Leach and Jim Nussle into the same district. Leach moved into an open district.

Ten years later, when Iowa went from five to four congressional districts, legislators adopted a plan that put Democratic Reps. Dave Loebsack and Bruce Braley into one district. Loebsack moved across the district line to run again. It also put GOP Reps. Tom Latham and Steve King into the same district. Latham moved and defeated another incumbent, the late Rep. Leonard Boswell.

Although the delay could be a headache for the Legislative Services Agency, Cook said there’s no reason for panic. Legislators will have time in the 2021 session to decide what, if any, steps to take. The delay likely will mean lawmakers will have to deal with redistricting in a special session.

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

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