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Redistricting the Iowa Way

Friday, April 16, 2021

Every ten years, following a new US Census count, states must redraw their political maps.  That means drawing new Congressional and state legislative districts so they are roughly equal in population size.  In some states (probably most states) this is a political process and the political party in control of the Legislature can draw the districts in ways that favor their candidates or protect their elected officials.  This is called gerrymandering and it is not constitutional (but it still happens).  But not in Iowa.  Iowa's process for redistricting is a national model, one that keeps the politics out of the decisions.  But this year, even Iowa's model is challenged.

The Iowa Constitution requires the State Legislature to complete the redistricting process by September 1, with the new maps in place by September 15. If this does not happen, the Iowa Supreme Court is to "cause the state to be appportioned into senatorial and representative districts to comply with the requirements of the Constitution by December 31." Because of COVID-19 delays in the Census count, the Federal government will not have census data ready for states until the end of September.   So what does Iowa do?

The Iowa Supreme Court issued a statement this week saying they will "cause" redistricting to happen by having the State Legislature follow Iowa's current law, basically giving them until December 31 to have something adopted.   That probably means the Legislature will be back for a special session in October to pass a redistricting plan. Here are a few things you need to know about it:

  • Non-partisan legislative staff develop the first plan; legislators may vote for or against, but they cannot amend it.
  • If the first plan fails, the non-partisan staff go back and come up with a second plan. As with the first plan, it cannot be amended.
  • Legislators have never forced a third plan, but if they do, it can be amended. However, legislators could only amend as allowed by law.

Iowa law is very strict about what can and cannot be considered when drawing the maps. It's a lot of math, but luckily computers do it now. The team of four non-partisan staff that will be in charge of the map drawing are very experienced.  This will be the third redistricting cycle for three of them, and the fourth for the other staffer.  Since it's unlikely that those reading this are statistics experts, the following is a simplified version of Iowa law.  You can read more about it here

  • Each Congressional District must be as close to equal as possible (they cannot vary in population by more than 1%). Iowa has four congressional districts; that is not expected to change.

  • Iowa's 50 state senate districts must be as close to equal as possible.  They cannot vary from the ideal population by more than 1%. In addition, the senate district with the greatest population cannot vary by more than 5% from the district with the lowest population.
  • The same goes for Iowa's 100 state representative districts - they must also be within this 1% margin from the ideal population and have no more than a 5% spread between the district with the most and least population.
  • The maps are also a jigsaw puzzle.  Two state representative districts must fit within one state senate district. Each state senate district must fit entirely within a congressional district.  In addition, the districts are not to split cities and counties is possible.

  • If cities or counties are to be split, the most populated areas are to be split first before the least populated areas. 
  • The districts are all to be as compact as possible (square, rectangular, or hexagonal in shape). They are not to be "irregularly shaped." Iowa law actually has two tests for compactness in the law to help with this.  
  • The law does not allow the following to be taken into consideration: registered voter political parties, addresses of current elected officials, previous election results, and demographic information thta could be used to dilute or weaken the voting strength of a language, racial, or other minority group.
  • A five-person Temporary Redistricting Advisory Committee is appointed to communicate redistricting plans and get public comment. This committee has met three times, but has still yet to select a fifth member. Two members are selected by Republicans, two members by Democrats, and the last member is selected by the other four.  The committee must be gender-balanced.  Currently the two Republicans (former Department of Management Director Dave Roederer and former House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow) are men and the two Democrats are split (former Secretary of State candidate Deidre DeJear and Quad Cities lawyer Ian Russell). That means the fifth member will need to be a woman. Republicans want former State Representative Carmine Boal of Ankeny, and Democrats put forth Terese Grant, the League of Women Voters of Iowa President and former Grinnell College professor. 

It is important to get districts done as soon as possible, because people who want to run for office must make that decision in March 2022. If legislators are put in the same district as their friends, one of them may move. There is a lot to consider; if you are thinking about running for office, you probably will want some time to look at the map before jumping all in on a campaign. Speaking of which, isn't it about time that Iowa elect a person with a disability?  Maybe you want to run.  The first place to start is contacting your local county political party to let them know you are interested.   If you're not interested in running, think about helping out those that do. It's the best way to get to know your future elected officials! 

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