The long-awaited release of fresh U.S. census data has ushered in Iowa’s decennial legislative redistricting. We hope the decision, as it has been for the past 40 years, is fair and nonpartisan.
The Iowa Legislature is poised to miss its Sept. 15 deadline for approving new maps for state legislative districts because to the pandemic-related delay in handing out population numbers. The Iowa Supreme Court would be in charge of redistricting under the state constitution.
We won’t know what the court will do until after the deadline. The procedure might be taken up by the justices themselves, or legislators could continue to vote on a map created by legislative staff.
We expect the Supreme Court will depend on the Legislative Services Agency, which has an excellent track record of nonpartisan redistricting over the last four 10-year cycles. If legislators are given the duty of approving maps, we recommend that they use one created by legislative staff with no changes made by elected officials.
It wouldn’t be totally out of character for them to pull an autumn switcheroo on the voters.
The Legislative Services Agency, as part of the normal realignment process, creates a map based on a set of rules intended to exclude political partiality. After that, legislators vote yes or no. The process is repeated if the first map is rejected. Legislators can change the third map if it is voted down again.
There’s a lot of potential for mischief in the third map. The ruling party might redraw boundaries to suit itself, a strategy known as gerrymandering, in which politicians choose their voters rather than the other way around. Other states’ legislators utilize it to sway the map in their favor.
Republican lawmakers are insistent that they have no plans to change Iowa’s lauded nonpartisan redistricting process, and they have made no legislative overtures to that purpose, to their credit. However, rejecting the professionally produced maps in favor of their own modified design would be within the existing process, and it would still be a horrible idea.
To put it another way, politicians could follow the rules while yet causing a political shambles.
It’s hard to blame detractors for being concerned about what Republicans, who control the state and both legislative chambers, would do with the map. They have codified various modifications to election legislation that we perceive as blatant attempts to manipulate the system in their favor under one-party domination. It wouldn’t be completely out of character for them to surprise the voters with an autumn switcheroo.
If Iowa history is any indicator, unbiased redistricting is not just good government, but it’s also excellent politics.
A court fight during the 1971 decennial realignment resulted in Iowa’s redistricting procedure, which is widely regarded as one of the best in the country at reducing party influence. After legislators were accused of creating districts with uneven demographics to protect incumbents, the Iowa Supreme Court took control and drew its own map, concluding that the legislators’ version violated the concept of one person, one vote.
According to guest columnist Roger Munns, a former Gazette and Associated Press reporter, half of the lawmakers who supported the distorted map were either voted out or retired from the Legislature in the following years. Their protectionist gambit came at a political price.
Gerrymandering is one of the few nasty techniques politicians use to instill distrust in the democratic system. Some residents feel that Iowa’s districts are rigged to benefit Republicans because the system is so well-known and politicians are so universally regarded as corrupt. They aren’t, at least for the time being.
In recent years, Iowa Republicans have been able to ride the political and demographic winds to considerable electoral success. That was the pattern before they passed rules requiring voter identification, making it more difficult for third-party candidates to get on the ballot, and restricting early and absentee voting. Even if you’re a partisan cynic, it’s difficult to see how those policies benefit anyone.
The only benefit of gerrymandering in a state where one party already controls the levers of government power is popular resentment and unhappiness.