DES MOINES — The Iowa Supreme Court will preserve as much as possible the state’s redrawing of political boundaries if federal census data is not available in time to honor a constitutional deadline, the court announced Thursday.
The high court offered no details how it would handle the process, which will create new political districts for the Iowa Legislature and the state’s four U.S. House seats for the next 10 years.
States are preparing for the decennial process of redrawing political boundaries for the next decade, but the COVID-19 pandemic has caused delays in the U.S. Census Bureau.
The bureau recently announced it will send census data to the states by September 30. But the Iowa Constitution says its process must be completed by September 15, and if the Iowa Legislature does not complete the process by that date, the Iowa Supreme Court assumes the responsibility.
The Iowa Supreme Court on Thursday issued a statement saying if the census data is not available before that deadline, the court would implement a redistricting process that would match as much as possible the procedure described in state law.
“If the (Iowa Legislature) is not able to meet the constitutional deadline, the (Iowa) supreme court tentatively plans to meet its constitutional responsibility by implementing a process which permits, to the extent possible, the redistricting framework presently set forth in (state law) to proceed after September 15,” the statement said. “Under such a process, the supreme court would cause the state to be apportioned into senatorial and representative districts to comply with the requirements of the constitution prior to December 31.”
The announcement said the court does not plan to answer questions or make any further statements about redistricting.
The announcement also said the court typically does not comment on matters in advance of their presentation to the court out of fairness, but the court said it made an exception in this case because of “considerable public concern surrounding the redistricting process,” and because other states’ courts have issued orders related to redistricting.
Iowa’s redistricting process is widely hailed for its nonpartisan procedures. Maps are designed and proposed by the state’s nonpartisan legal and fiscal analysis agency, then approved by state lawmakers. Partisan legislators become involved in drawing their own districts only if they vote to reject two sets of maps proposed by the nonpartisan agency.
Without federal census data, the redistricting process is stalled. Legislative leaders have been examining alternatives in case the data is not available before the constitutional deadline. Iowa Sen. Jack Whitver, the leader of the majority Senate Republicans, had previously proposed suing the federal government for its most current census data.
“The U.S. Constitution, the Iowa Constitution, and Iowa law all place the responsibility for the redistricting process in the hands of the Iowa Legislature. I share the court’s desire to retain Iowa’s current redistricting process and the Iowa Legislature’s role, despite the pointless and legally dubious delays from the (President Joe) Biden Administration,” Whitver said in a statement.
Many Iowa Democrats have been sounding alarms that Republicans may use their majorities in the Iowa House and Iowa Senate and a Republican governor to push the redistricting process to that final step so they could draw boundaries that benefit their party.
“Today’s statement from the Iowa Supreme Court regarding their role in this year’s unique redistricting process underscores the importance of adhering to the Constitution and Iowa law as currently written,” Iowa Sen. Zach Wahls, leader of the minority Senate Democrats, said in a statement. “Fair maps require the best possible data from U.S. Census Bureau, which may result in our state missing the September 15 constitutional deadline. The Supreme Court will have a crucial role if that delay occurs, and it is imperative that the Court ensure we continue Iowa’s long tradition of fair maps for every Iowan.”
The U.S. Census Bureau said it has remained in contact with states' nonpartisan liaisons and has offered tools for states to get a head start on their redistricting procedures before the final data becomes available.