Gerrymandering not the Iowa way

Last week the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal courts are powerless to weigh in on cases involving political gerrymandering.

Does the ruling have an implication for Iowa’s congressional and legislative redistricting following the 2020 Census?

The answer is: Probably not. But that’s not ironclad.

The 5-4 decision does not mean that gerrymandering can’t be made illegal. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing the decision for the 5-4 majority in the case, stated, “Our conclusion does not condone excessive partisan gerrymandering. Nor does our conclusion condemn complaints about districting to echo into a void.”

Instead, the decision leaves federal gerrymandering issues up to Congress. It could pass a law that regulates federal election districts. 

The House, now under Democratic control, earlier this year approved a bill that would force states to create independent election commissions that would use nonpartisan measures to draw House districts.

But there’s precious little chance that the Senate is about to concur. 

Republicans currently dominate more state legislatures and governorships than do Democrats, and the GOP is not about to give away that advantage.

So most congressional districts will undoubtedly remain subject to the tender mercies of most state legislatures. The upshot is more extreme political division in Congress, if that is actually possible. Gerrymandering creates districts where the ends of the political spectrum grow in power at the expense of moderates in both parties.

In 31 of the 50 states, state legislatures draw electoral district lines. Among those  where one party dominates, those lines are nearly always drawn to elect as many officials of that party as possible. 

Some districts, therefore, are drafted in bizarre shapes.

The practice is as old as the nation. In 1812, Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry signed a law that created an electoral district resembling the shape of a salamander; hence the term “gerrymandering.” 

Recent legislatures around the nation have outdone the creativity of Massachusetts’ effort of 200 years ago.

Could that happen in Iowa?

Not under our current laws.

As a knowledgeable former Iowa legislator pointed out to me, a law adopted prior to the redistricting of the Iowa electoral districts that preceded the 1982 election turned over the task of drawing the state’s district lines to the nonpartisan Iowa Legislative Services Agency (LSA).

The districts, both congressional and legislative, must be as close to identical in population, as compact, and as contiguous as possible. Political affiliations of incumbent legislators and members of Congress expressly must be ignored. 

And there are other requirements that aim at fairness as well.

The first plan drawn by the LSA goes to the Legislature, which may accept or reject it, but can’t change it. If it is rejected, the LSA draws another plan, striving for even more population equality among districts. That plan, too, can be accepted or rejected. 

If a third plan is required, that one can be altered by the Legislature. But that plan must then go immediately to the Iowa Supreme Court, which decides if it meets the requirements of the redistricting law. If it doesn’t, the court then draws a plan, which goes into effect without legislative referral.

The Legislature cannot return to a previous plan if it doesn’t like a subsequent one. In other words, it can’t select the “best” one.

So in Iowa, politics are squeezed out of the redistricting process as much as possible. 

For now.

But the process was created by statute; it’s not enshrined in the Iowa Constitution. The Legislature giveth, and the Legislature can taketh away. 

If the Republicans who control both legislative houses and the governorship decided to do so, they could alter the “Iowa Plan,” as it’s known and admired nationwide. So could the Democrats if they regained that kind of control.

The Iowa Constitution provides some modicum of protection for fairness and nonpartisanship. It states that electoral districts must be compact and contiguous, and establishes general guidelines for equality of population. So any change to the current Iowa Plan must meet those requirements.

The current redistricting method is popular among Iowans. I’ve not heard any rumor regarding attempts at change. 

But there was little public discussion prior to the recent change in how we select members of judicial nominating commissions, or recent changes to the state’s collective bargaining law, or other changes to Iowa’s laws that somehow pop up in legislative sessions with little forewarning. 

Iowa appears inoculated, by our 1980 law, against the kind of political gerrymandering that the Roberts decision says can’t be regulated by the federal courts. 

But it’s not a slam dunk.

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