News: CJ Exclusives

Iowa Offers Redistricting Lessons

State uses bureau system, neutral rules to guide process

If any redistricting procedure should be viewed as exemplary, Iowa may be the best model for other states.

After the state Supreme Court struck down its districts in the 1970s because its population variance was too great, the Iowa General Assembly turned redistricting responsibilities over to legislative staff.

The Legislative Services Bureau, which draws both legislative and congressional maps, is required by statutory authority to disregard political affiliations and incumbency when designing new districts. The only demographical information it may use is population (Iowa is not subject to the Voting Rights Act).

The bureau must draw districts with the following considerations, in order of highest priority to lowest:

• Population equality
• Contiguousness
• Respect of county and city unity
• Compactness

Once the districts are drawn, the legislature must vote up or down on the plan. No amendments or changes are permitted.

If the legislature doesn’t approve the first maps, the bureau gets two more cracks at it, and lawmakers are not allowed to amend those plans, either.

History of votes

The first Assembly vote on districts under the new process was in 1981, when the bureau’s third plan was adopted. The 1991 Democrat-led legislature approved the first plan presented to it, which appeared to throw elections wide open. Two years later Republicans held four of Iowa’s five seats in Congress.

In 2001, with both chambers under GOP control, the legislature overwhelmingly adopted the bureau’s second offering. The plan paired 64 incumbents in state legislative districts, and Republican Reps. Jim Nussle and Jim Leach were thrown together in the 1st Congressional District.

Iowa’s lawmakers also face strict deadlines to get new districts drawn. If the Assembly doesn’t pass one of the three bureau plans, it must draw its own plans by Sept. 1, or the state Supreme Court decides on the new districts.

The prospect of a veto by Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack on a later plan may have motivated legislative Republicans to accept the second plan instead of taking its chances with the court.

The effect of pairing incumbents

Iowa hesitates little to pair incumbents in existing districts, and because of that, lawmakers feel free to move about the state. Leach, a 27-year veteran of the U.S. House, relocated to the 2nd District after his pairing with Nussle. The move to the Democrat-leaning district made more sense for the liberal Leach rather than his conservative counterpart.

Likewise, decennial redistricting motivates several state legislators to uproot. Despite the changes in 2001, Republicans still held a 54-46 advantage in the Iowa House and a 29-21 lead in the Senate.
Even with the ever-changing districts, litigation has been avoided since the 1970s.

“They’ve had no suits, and got the job done,” said Peter Wattson of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But unlike North Carolina, in Iowa no lawmaker is forced to move from his beachfront home or mountain abode.

Chesser is associate editor of Carolina Journal.