Government

Delay in releasing census data may force special session of Iowa Legislature

The data kicks off the process of redrawing election districts

Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley, right, stands June 3 in the House chambers in Des Moines as lawmakers return after susp
Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley, right, stands June 3 in the House chambers in Des Moines as lawmakers return after suspending their 2020 session because of the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

DES MOINES — A top Iowa legislative leader says the 2021 General Assembly that will be sworn in next month could be required to hold an extraordinary meeting after the regular session adjourns this spring if federal delays in issuing census data pushes redistricting deliberations into the summer.

Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said uncertainty over when U.S. Census Bureau 2020 population numbers will be released due to coronavirus-related delays may move back the timetable by which the Legislature considers plans for redrawing the boundaries of congressional and legislative districts in Iowa.

If officials in the non-partisan Legislative Services Agency do not get official population data until April 1, it’s unlikely new maps can be produced for lawmakers’ consideration before their scheduled April 30 adjournment target on the session’s 110th day.

“I think we should be prepared that there may be a scenario that arises where we’re doing a special session to address redistricting,” Grassley said in an interview earlier this week.

“I can’t give you an exact date on when we will see anything, but what I’m being told is that we should expect that there will be a delay,” he said. “So I hate to say absolutely that there will be, but I think that we should be prepared for that.”

Under Iowa’s constitutional framework, Legislative Service Agency drafters have 45 days after receiving census data to present a reapportionment plan based on population equality for congressional and state legislative districts.

Iowa law states the districts must not be drawn to favor any political party, incumbent legislators or member of Congress or to dilute or strengthen the voting strength of a language or racial minority.

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Typically, based on previous redistricting processes, data from the census would show up by February. But Ed Cook, the agency’s legal counsel who will be involved in his third redistricting process, said drafters “really haven’t had anything definitive” from the U.S. Census Bureau due to COVID-19 delays in the information-gathering process.

“The deadline is April 1. Whether they make that deadline or not, I think their intent is to try to come close to that deadline,” said Cook, who hopes to get better information or a target date early next month.

“At this point they’re just saying TBD — to be determined,” Cook noted. “If it’s around April 1, it should be OK.”

At the same time, he called April 1 “the best-case scenario.” Starting the process in April would mean the earliest that a first plan could come before legislators for a vote would be mid- to late May, he said.

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

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

“There’s a set procedure on how we do (redistricting) and we’ll follow those procedures,” said state Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel, the incoming president of the Iowa Senate, in a recent interview.

“We have timelines that we have to get our work done when it comes to redistricting and I think perhaps the biggest challenge for us is just the time of when we’re going have those census numbers and when we get it all wrapped up,” he said.

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A special session isn’t the only option legislators have. Notably, during the 2020 session earlier this year, lawmakers paused their regular session in March due to the pandemic and returned in June to finish.

Under Iowa’s non-partisan redistricting process, Legislative Services officials use census data to draw legislative and congressional districts that then go through a public hearing process before the plan is taken up by legislators. If the plan is not approved or is vetoed by the governor, the agency must submit a second plan within 35 days, taking into account the objections.

The governor has veto power over the first two plans.

If lawmakers reject the second plan, the agency must submit a third plan within another 35-day window and, unlike the first two plans, the third plan can be amended.

If no plan is approved by the Legislature by Sept. 1 to become law by Sept. 15, or if a plan is challenged in court and ruled invalid, the Iowa Supreme Court would establish a plan before Dec. 31.

Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

James Q. Lynch of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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