Lawmakers launch unique redistricting

Iowa’s five congressional districts, which are likely to be reduced to four because of decreases in population.

Submitted graphic
Daily Iowegian

Lawmakers in Iowa are about to launch their most overtly partisan chore: The redrawing of legislative and congressional districts.

Every 10 years after the census is conducted, the Legislature must approve new congressional and legislative district lines reflecting changes in population, and the configuration of those lines dictates the politics of a state for the next decade.

In some states, legislatures battle for months, while the courts are forced to settle the issue in others as the two parties compete for any edge.

In Iowa, the issue is settled by the Legislative Services Agency, a nonpartisan group of lawyers and economists who draft bills, offer financial projections and give other technical advice to the Legislature. And they don't talk publicly about their recommendations.

"Some states use legislatures, some states use commissions and then there's Iowa," said Tim Storey, a senior fellow with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver. "The Iowa approach to redistricting is unlike any other state."

That Legislative Services Agency prepares a map of new congressional and legislative districts, and that initial map must be submitted to the Legislature by April 1. In preparing the map, staffers can use only population data to propose districts that are as close to equal and as compact as possible.

They are banned from considering data such as voter registration or voter performance, and they don't have access to the addresses of incumbent legislators and congressmen until after the map is prepared. Once the map is drawn, they go back and figure out which lawmakers are in which district.

"Many things make the Iowa process unique, including the prohibition on the use of political data," Storey said.

The task will be especially tricky because Iowa is among at least nine states likely to lose a seat in Congress. That means two of the current five are likely to be paired in a new district.

The Legislature can't amend the first plan, only vote it up or down. If it's voted down, staffers will prepare a second, also not subject to amendment. If that plan is rejected, staffers start again and prepare a third plan, which can be amended.

Legislative leaders say they'll stick with that nonpartisan approach, despite the consequences it can bring.

Republicans controlled the Legislature after the 1980 census and approved the new maps only to see Democrats seize the Legislature in 1982. Democrats approved the new maps after 1990 and Republicans took over the Legislature.

Continuing the streak, Republicans ran the Legislature after the 2000 census and approved the new maps, and Democrats quickly took back control.

Top leaders of both parties say they have no intention of tinkering with the system, though inevitably there will be victims as many lawmakers find themselves paired with other incumbents or in less-friendly districts.

Last time around, U.S. Rep. Leonard Boswell was forced to move from his Davis City farm to Des Moines because he was tossed into an overwhelmingly Republican western Iowa district now represented by Republican Rep. Steve King.

"We're not planning on touching it at all," said House Speaker Pat Murphy, D-Dubuque, who conceded there will be lots of turnover.

"This is our form of term limits in Iowa," he said. "We'll have probably a third of the chamber turn over."

Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said he believes most people are satisfied with how redistricting is handled in Iowa.

"It appears to have worked very fairly and well," he said.

Gronstal said there are solid reasons not to tamper with the nonpartisan maps. Those maps are designed to offer districts as equal as possible in population, while keeping them as compact as possible. Should lawmakers draw their own map with less population equality, or with odd-shaped districts, they would be inviting the courts to intervene.

"The courts have said if you have a better map available you better have a good reason for not taking it," said Gronstal.

Senate Minority Leader Paul McKinley, R-Chariton, agreed that there likely would be a lot of turnover after the new districts are drawn.

"I am one of those people who believe that redistricting is a healthy thing," said McKinley. "It really addresses the issue of somebody being in office too long."

House Minority Leader Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said he supports the current process.

"It has served us well," Paulsen said.

Murphy said redistricting is one case where all sides may be better off with an objective process.

"I know we're in a partisan environment, but we try to do it in a nonpartisan way," Murphy said.

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