DES MOINES — There is bipartisan agreement at the Statehouse that Iowa should keep its nonpartisan approach to drawing boundaries for congressional and legislative districts.
In light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that directed states to make that decision, Gov. Kim Reynolds as well as top Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate have committed to make no changes in the process during the 2020 legislative session — one year before the next shake-up for incumbents arrives when new districts are drawn based upon the latest Census population data for Iowa.
“I have no intention whatsoever” of changing Iowa’s redistricting approach, the Republican governor said in a recent interview. “We are a model for other states to follow. It could not be a fairer process, and so I have no inclination at all to change that.”
The topic has surfaced in Iowa due to a recent 5-4 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that decided the federal courts do not have a role to play in deciding whether partisan gerrymandering goes too far, giving a dominant political party in a state leeway to draw electoral maps that preserve or even expand its power.
“We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in a decision handed down last month. “Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution, and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions.”
In Iowa, Republicans hold majorities of 32-18 in the Senate and 53-47 in the House, along with the governorship. But all 100 House seats and 25 Senate seats will be contested next year before the newly configured 89th General Assembly convenes in 2021 and considers the reapportionment issue that will set boundaries congressional and legislative districts for the next decade.
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Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said his GOP caucus has “no plans” to make any changes to Iowa’s redistricting process, which has been managed at the state level for decades.
“The Supreme Court returned the authority for this decision to states across the country,” said Whitver. “The result of the Supreme Court decision appears to not change the current redistricting process in Iowa.”
That gave some comfort to Democrats including legislative battle-weary House Minority Leader Todd Prichard of Charles City, who held up Iowa’s process as a “model for the nation” in keeping partisan politics out of the process of redrawing district lines.
“With Gov. Reynolds’ and Republican lawmakers’ power grab last session to change how Iowa judges are selected, I am worried our fair redistricting process is in danger,” he said. “The Iowa House Democrats support our current system, which has served Iowa well for over three decades.”
That concern was echoed by Matt Sinovic, executive director of the 75,000-member Progress Iowa progressive advocacy organization, who called on Iowa’s political leaders to publicly state their support for Iowa’s redistricting process in light of the court ruling he said “should send a chill down the spine of every Iowan who values fair elections.”
“Political districts have been drawn based on politics in other states, and there have been disastrous results. Thankfully, Iowa has a nonpartisan plan in place,” said Sinovic. “That plan should remain in place, and every elected official in Iowa should speak out in favor of it.”
Iowans amended the state constitution in 1968 to require congressional and legislative districts be equal in population. After a subsequent court challenge to legislatively drawn maps based on the 1970 Census, the Iowa Supreme Court found the redistricting plans unconstitutional and ended up drawing the districts.
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After that, the Legislature approved in 1980 and former Gov. Robert Ray signed into law a plan designed to take partisan politics out of the process. It directed the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency to draw new district boundaries based upon equal population that also take into account political subdivisions, contiguousness and compactness while excluding political factors such as data concerning incumbents’ addresses, party affiliations and previous election returns.
Under the Iowa approach, the first staff-drawn map is presented to the Legislature, which may only vote the plan up or down with no amending. If rejected, a second map is presented with the same provisos. If that plan is rejected, a third map is presented to the Legislature which can be amended.
Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, chairman of the State Government Committee, said that approach remains the law of Iowa and “the only people that I’ve heard talking about changing that are Democrats trying to invent boogie men to slay.”
Iowa’s current reapportionment system is not without consequences. Just ask Rep. Pat Grassley, who was thrown into a GOP primary contest in 2012 with then-Rep. and now state Sen. Annette Sweeney, R-Alden, when the two incumbents were placed together in the newly drawn House District 50. Grassley ended up winning the primary.
“I see nothing wrong with our redistricting process and I don’t see anyone wanting to change,” said Grassley, R-New Hartford, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
“I think if anyone had some frustrations with it, it would be me after my primary that I had after the last redistricting, but I think we have a good process in the state and I think the conversations around that have been much overblown,” he added. “If anybody can complain about it, it’s me, but I think we have a good process here.”
Senate Democratic Leader Janet Petersen of Des Moines said Iowa elected officials should pledge to support “fair maps” and vow not to change a redistricting process in 2021 that is “fair, efficient and free of corruption.”