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ERIN MURPHY: New political maps could create chaos; and that’s just fine

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Chaos.

That’s one potential result of proposed new Iowa political maps that were published this week.

But that chaos would not necessarily be a bad thing. In fact, it’s sort of the whole point.

The first proposal for new political boundaries in Iowa for the next 10 years were published Thursday by the state’s Legislative Services Agency, a nonpartisan group of analysts that works out of the Iowa Capitol. It was the first significant step in Iowa’s decennial redistricting process.

The proposed maps were in many ways jarring.

The proposed Congressional map would dramatically alter Iowa’s four districts. Western Iowa’s conservative-leaning 4th District would be 44 counties --- nearly half the state. And the political composition of eastern Iowa’s 1st and 2nd Districts would change significantly, with the 1st swinging more Democratic and the 2nd more Republican.

And then there’s the madness that is the 150 statehouse districts: 100 in the Iowa House and 50 in the Iowa Senate. As of Friday it was still an estimate, but roughly 60 state legislators would be drawn into a district with at least one other incumbent state legislator, meaning two incumbents would have to face each other in the next election for the right to represent that new district. In one Quad Cities-area district, three sitting Senators --- two Republicans and one Democrat --- would be drawn into the same, new district.

Like I said … chaos.

But there’s nothing wrong with a little chaos sometimes. And in this case, it’s actually a feature, not a bug.

Redistricting is supposed to shuffle the deck a little bit. That’s why it’s there in the first place: so we don’t have the same exact people in our government representing the same exact regions for decade after decade. If we had decided stasis was fine, we would not have written into our constitutions that this process be conducted every 10 years.

We want the chaos.

What’s most important is not whether the redistricting process changes a district’s political leanings in one direction or the other, or whether it creates uncomfortable decisions for incumbent lawmakers. What’s most important is whether the process is fair and creates equal representation in Iowa’s government.

That’s one of the best parts about Iowa’s process, which is hailed nationally for its unbiased and nonpartisan nature: it is, by design, almost as fair and non-political as possible. The nonpartisan LSA draws the map, using a formula that is cold and unfeeling, based purely on the numbers. Considerations are not given to protecting one party or the other, or even sitting lawmakers. They crunch the numbers and spit out a map; that description obviously over-simplifies the process, but it’s also fairly close to the mark.

So if the proposed maps are unfair in any nonpolitical way, surely we will hear those arguments in the coming weeks as the state holds a series of public hearings on the maps. And on September 5, in a special session, legislators will cast a simple yes or no vote on the maps.

If lawmakers in the Republican-led Iowa Legislature vote to accept those maps, we will have our new political boundaries for the next 10 years, starting with the 2022 elections. If lawmakers reject these maps, LSA goes back to the drawing board and pitches an alternative.

It will be interesting to see how lawmakers vote on these first maps, especially given how many of them would be drawn into new districts with fellow incumbents. They could reject these maps, but there’s no guarantee they’ll like a second round of maps any better.

And the process goes no longer than a third round, at which point lawmakers must either pass the maps as drawn or amend them and pass that amended version. But with all-Republican control of the Legislature, passing an amended map could threaten the bipartisan nature of the process, which is hailed for exactly that reason.

For all those reasons, the next few weeks will be interesting to watch.

But at the heart of it all, lawmakers should not make their decisions based solely on political impacts. They should remember that a little chaos can be a good thing, and it’s really why we’re doing this in the first place.

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government for Lee Enterprises. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

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