A haven from extreme partisanship

The U.S. Supreme Court has an opportunity to cripple extreme partisanship in government operations. The justices could do worse than recommending the Iowa model.

The court has now heard two state cases involving brazen gerrymandering of electoral districts, one from Wisconsin and another from Maryland. The Wisconsin case was heard last October, and the Maryland case took place last week.

The fact that in the Wisconsin case the redistricting was done by a Republican legislature and in the Maryland case by a Democratic one suggests the court considers gerrymandering worthy of a serious look. A court ruling is expected by June.

The term “gerrymandering,” as most high school political science students know, comes from the name of Elbridge Gerry, who in 1812 was governor of Massachusetts. Gerry signed a bill which redrew that state’s legislative districts to the benefit of his Democratic-Republican Party.

One of the new districts — the Essex South Senate district — resembled the shape of a salamander, and the Boston Gazette coined the word “gerrymander” to describe it. The term came to be synonymous with the practice of manipulating district boundary lines to the benefit of a particular group, usually a political party.

Why should the court refer states to Iowa’s redistricting law?

Prior to the 1960s, Iowa’s electoral districts were about as out of balance as those of other states. Population differences from district to district were obvious, giving the voters of smaller populated districts much more clout than those of the larger ones.

But the U.S. Supreme Court, in a series of cases in the 1960s, established that “one person, one vote” is required by the U.S. Constitution in federal and state elections, particularly through the 14th Amendment.

As a result, in 1970, the Iowa Legislature — at that time under the control of Republicans in both houses, and with Bob Ray, also a Republican, as governor — created the redistricting method that Iowa continues to use today. The Iowa Supreme Court played a major role as well.

Under the Iowa system, a committee of the state Legislative Services Agency (LSA) redraws Iowa’s legislative and congressional district maps following every 10-year U.S. census. The committee is required to observe the categories of compactness, contiguity, observance of boundaries of governmental units such as counties and cities, and relative equality of population. Incumbency and partisanship are not permitted as factors.

The agency then submits those maps to the Iowa Legislature, which must either accept or reject them in an up-or-down vote. If a map is rejected, it is sent back to the LSA with instructions to try again.

The second map must adhere to the same criteria as the first, but must be even more balanced in terms of population.

If the Legislature were to also reject the second map, then the LSA draws a third one. This one can be amended by the Legislature, which must continue to abide by the original criteria guidelines.

But the catch is that the Iowa Supreme Court, if it decides the third map does not meet the requirements, then will redraw the boundary lines itself, and its map becomes law.

So rejection of the first plan, or the second plan, is a crapshoot for legislators.     

After the 1980 census, for example, Republicans controlled the Iowa Legislature. The minority Democrats announced they would accept the LSA-drawn first plan sight unseen. The majority Republicans, on the other hand, wanted to take a look at it.

The Republicans decided they didn’t like the first plan, because it pitted a few of their incumbents against each other. So they rejected it.

The second plan proved even more unfavorable to Republicans. But under the Iowa law, once the Legislature rejects a plan it can’t go back and reverse itself. So the GOP was stuck with the second plan, unless they chose to reject it too and try their luck on a third plan. They decided not to take that chance, and the second plan was approved.

Legislative and congressional districting maps are all-important for states because they determine district boundary lines for the next 10 years. Unless there is nonpartisan determination of those lines, the political party that happens to be in power when the lines are drawn is likely to have a strong advantage in the state for the next decade.

Iowa’s redistricting rules have been applauded by good government organizations around the United States for many years.

The U.S. Supreme Court could take a major stride to strengthen democracy by requiring states to reduce gerrymandered partisanship, as Iowa did more than 40 years ago.

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