Iowa’s process for drawing new legislative and congressional district lines is considered a model of non-partisanship that prevents gerrymandering — the drawing of boundaries to give the majority party an electoral advantage.
Triggered by the release of the 2020 census, Iowa will undertake the process of redrawing election districts this year as it and the other states have every decade.
But Democrats have voiced concerns that Republicans, who hold the governor’s office as well as majorities in the Iowa House and Iowa Senate, will use that trifecta to “tip the scales in their favor,” according to House Minority Leader Todd Prichard, D-Charles City.
“I’d hate to see them overplay their hand. I don’t think that would serve the people of Iowa,” Prichard said. “I think it’d be an overreach of their power, an abuse of power.”
Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said that while he’s not “obsessing over” redistricting, he is “definitely concerned.”
“I want to make sure that we protect a fair process,” Wahls said.
Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, dismissed as “conspiracy theories ... simply far-left fantasies” any concerns that the GOP would change Iowa’s method to try to gain an advantage for the next 10 years. He chairs the State Government Committee where the redistricting bill will start in the House.
“The process is largely constitutional. We’re not going to change that,” added Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny.
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The only hitch they see is that legislators may have to return to the Capitol for a special session because the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency expects the Census Bureau data needed to draw new district maps to be delayed because of COVID-19.
Typically, the agency delivers a new map to legislators by April 1, but that’s based on an assumption it receives census data by Feb. 15.
“I’ve been cautioned that we might not get that first map until sometime in May, meaning that we might be out of session before we even see the first map,” Kaufmann said. The 110-day 2021 session is scheduled to run from Jan. 11 until April 30.
The new map will establish the borders for 100 Iowa House, 50 Iowa Senate and four U.S. House districts for the next 10 years.
A decade ago after the 2010 census, Iowa lost a seat in the U.S. House, going down from five to four representatives. Such a loss is not expected again this time.
If lawmakers don’t approve the first election map drawn by the nonpartisan agency, they get up to two more versions — all based on the constitutional requirements that the population of districts be as nearly equal as possible and that districts are of compact and contiguous territory.
Even with a delay, Kaufmann expects lawmakers will have time to approve a new map before the Sept. 1 deadline. If not, the Iowa Supreme Court draws the map.
Although the process is supposed to be nonpartisan, Wahls sees the possibility for Democratic gains in the last decade’s population shifts.
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That’s because the places where Iowa is growing tend to be in cities and suburbs where Democrats have seen the most election success.
“They’re building a lot of houses over in Tiffin ... in Ankeny and over in Waukee,” he said about communities around the blue Iowa City and Des Moines.
The possibility that population changes in Linn, Johnson, Polk, Story, Scott and Black Hawk counties could increase representation there at the cost of GOP seats in rural Iowa hasn’t been lost on Whitver.
“Since we took the trifecta a couple years ago we have tried to be very aggressive because you never know how long that trifecta will last,” he said. “So we’ve always wanted to continue to push to keep our promises that we make to the voters.”
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