No 'easy button' for dealing with delay in Iowa congressional, legislative redistricting

The Iowa State House cupola on Thur. Mar 11, 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
The Iowa State House cupola on Thur. Mar 11, 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

There is no “easy button” to press to redraw congressional and legislative election districts in a year that could prove especially hard since the federal government doesn’t promise to deliver the census data needed to start the process until a month after Iowa law says lawmakers must finish it.

Iowa this year must redraw boundaries for its four congressional districts and 150 legislative districts to reflect population changes since the last census in 2010.

The standards for doing that are strict, Ed Cook, senior legal counsel for the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency told four members of the Temporary Redistricting Advisory Committee on Monday.

Unlike in other states accused of gerrymandering, the process in Iowa requires the new districts be created with the smallest possible population variance between them as possible. And Iowa Code calls for the districts to be compact, keeping county boundaries intact in the congressional districts and, as much as possible, in new legislative boundaries.

“You can be pretty confident that we have a very consistent approach to how do congressional and legislative approach redistricting,” Cook said. While software is helpful, “It’s not quite as simple as pushing a button.”

The U.S. Census Bureau has told states it will deliver the population data by Sept. 30 — six months later than its original March 31 release date. At this time in the process a decade ago, Cook said, his agency was already crafting the first redistricting plan.

In 2011, the Iowa Legislature approved the plan on April 14.

The panel members, appointed by Democratic and Republican legislative leaders, had several questions about the process — especially the timeline. There are more unknowns than answers.

Among the unknowns is how the process will work if the latest population data isn’t delivered until Sept. 30 as the bureau says it may not be.

The Iowa Constitution requires lawmakers to complete legislative redistricting by Sept. 1. If not, the issue goes to the state Supreme Court.

“I don’t know how we get around the dates,” said David Roederer, a Republican appointed by House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford. “To turn this process over to the judicial branch was not what was intended in the separation of powers.”

The court was involved in 1970 when it ruled the plan lawmakers approved violated the constitution and again in 1971 when the following plan was challenged.

The Legislative Services Agency is gathering information it needs to complete its role in the process “as quickly as possible,” Cook said.

“We’re not going to cut corners,” he said. “We’re going to take as much time as we need to provide the best plan we can.”

The agency staff has some experience with the process. This will be Cook’s third redistricting cycle and Gary Rudicil, an agency senior computer systems analyst, has been through it four times before.

The panel will meet again March 1 to select a fifth member who will chair the commission. Its job is to provide advice to the agency, conduct public hearings on the plan the agency presents and make a recommendation to the Legislature.

Legislative leaders say they are considering their options in light of the census delays.

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