Staff Columnist

Iowa's redistricting process is safe, probably

The Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, March 12, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
The Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, March 12, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

Iowa’s model, nonpartisan redistricting process is as safe as kittens. Sleep easy.

We weren’t quite sure after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled recently that federal courts have no business stepping in to stop blatant partisan gerrymandering at the state level. Iowa Democrats, in particular, wondered whether bulldozing Republicans who run the Statehouse might take aim at our redistricting system to cement future majorities.

In Iowa, legislative and congressional district maps are drawn by non-partisan staff in the Legislative Services Agency, based on strict criteria that have nothing to do with politics. Sadly, we’re an exception. Many states carve up districts to consolidate partisan power.

But our grand system is merely a mortal statute, which could be altered by lawmakers and the governor.

But Iowa GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds told The Gazette’s Rod Boshart she has “no intention whatsoever” and “no inclination at all” to change our approach to redrawing districts after the 2020 census, calling our system “a model for other states to follow.” Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, says he has “no plans” for changes.

This past week, Reynolds was asked again about Democrats’ redistricting concerns, according to the Des Moines Register.

“They like to sound the alarm on anything they can because that’s what they do. Scare tactics is where they live,” Reynolds said Wednesday. “We’re not doing anything with it.”

Good to hear. And, of course, if voters hand control of the Iowa House to Democrats next year, the risk of partisan redistricting shenanigans all but evaporate.

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Still, the public absence of “plans” is not always a clear predictor of future results under the Golden Dome of Wisdom, especially under current management.

There once were no plans to privatize Medicaid, enact a Wisconsin-style gutting of Iowa’s 40-year-old public worker bargaining system or tinker with our 50-plus-year-old process of picking judges. And yet, here we are, with privately mismanaged Medicaid, bargaining rights carved up like a Sheboygan sausage and a state judicial nominating commission nudged even further right.

Plans can come at you pretty fast. If you don’t sounds some alarms, even an occasional false one, you might find yourself under a bulldozer.

Maybe redistricting is an Iowa institution so perfect and popular it’s truly off-limits. And maybe these folks would clear-cut wild roses and enact a goldfinch hunting season if it meant expanding and extending their power. Let’s just say it certainly bears watching.

There’s also the issue of “The Third Map.” It sounds like an Orson Wells flick, but it’s not.

If lawmakers reject the first two sets of maps drawn by nonpartisan staff, they’ll get a third map, which can be amended. Conceivably, the third map could offer partisans a chance to do some gerrymandering without changing the existing redistricting process.

It’s true, there are all sorts of statutory limits and judicial checks. It would be exceedingly difficult. But now that the Iowa Supreme Court swings right, who knows?

It really comes down to that fateful moment, after the maps hit the fan, and they don’t look so great for Republicans. Who will legislative leaders listen to? Will it be the voice of reason or the siren’s song of tribal partisanship?

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History is not encouraging. This spring, state Rep. Gary Worthan, R-Storm Lake, sprang a late-session amendment to a budget bill stripping Democratic Attorney General Tom Miller of his authority to join out-of-state legal actions. Worthan has had an ax to grind with Miller, and conceded his amendment amounted to retribution for the duly elected attorney general’s pursuit of legal action against the Trump administration.

Rather than shoot down this clearly misguided, shortsighted partisan power play, the House and Senate GOP stuck with the ax grinder all the way. Reynolds vetoed the measure, but only after Miller agreed to largely abide by its provisions, with a bill-signing pen held to his head.

So partisan impulse control is not strong with these folks. Take note.

But, surely, redistricting will be different. It’s far too important to mess with. Surely.

Sleep well, kittens. With one paw on the alarm.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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