In the wake of the 2010 Census, reapportionment and redistricting of seats of the US House of Representatives looms large on the political horizon. Those who have lost hope that redistricting can ever be anything but dysfunctional should spare some attention for Iowa during this ongoing process.
For those states unlucky enough to lose one or more of their seats, the unpleasantness is two-fold: reduced representation at the federal level accompanied by a contentious and highly partisan redistricting process.
Even in an era where the Republicans and Democrats fail to find common ground on almost every issue, the redistricting process is partisan to a unique degree. The process is unabashedly politicized. In most states no apologies or excuses are felt necessary as legislators comb over massive amounts of data, technology, and political research to form districts. The result is a meticulously crafted constituency where what most voters have in common is that they’ve been deemed reliable and likely to vote for a particular party’s candidate.
The messy and divisive nature of drawing districts tends to be discussed as a national problem. This is a generalization of course; part of why the process is so partisan and messy in the first place is that the duty to divvy up seats for Congress is entrusted to the State Legislatures, leaving us with fifty variations on dealing with the issue.
Current projections have eight states gaining one or more seats and ten states losing one or more seats. There will be 18 different instances of handling redistricting in the lead up to the 2012 elections.
Iowa is one of the states that will probably be undertaking redistricting. Like much of the Midwest, Iowa’s population growth has not kept place with the rest of the country. Thus Iowa will probably go into the 2012 elections voting to send four representatives to Congress, down from five (and down from a high of eleven in the 1930s).
A newcomer to Iowa politics might anticipate a very messy redistricting fight. Iowa has in recent years been the quintessential ‘Purple State’. Its Congressional delegation includes both liberal Democrats and some of the most out-spoken, Tea-Party affiliated Republicans; each Party currently has one of the State’s two Senate seats; the state legislature frequently switches between the parties with narrow majorities each time; and the state’s prominent role in national politics due to the Iowa caucuses turns the state into a constant forum for aspiring and outspoken politicians from across the nation to drop in and attempt to agitate their base.
However, Iowa’s contentious and heated state politics manage to coexist with an insulated and non-partisan redistricting policy. This is the result of litigation in Iowa in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decisions in Baker v. Carr and Reynolds v. Sims in the 1960s. Litigants in Iowa, as in the rest of the nation, now had the Supreme Court’s decision permitting courts to hear cases regarding districting disputes, and these courts had to adhere to the One-Person-One-Vote standard.
Over the next two decades, Iowa struggled with the new status quo. Initially, Iowa entrusted redistricting to the legislature, as has been the traditional policy nation-wide. And, as in many other states, the new districts were promptly challenged in court for allowing too much variation in population. In 1972 the Supreme Court of Iowa rejected the General Assembly’s districting plan in In re Legislative Districting of General Assembly and redrew the districts that would be used in the 1970s.
In response, the legislature decided to get out of the redistricting game. Legislation in 1980 essentially transferred redistricting over to the legislature’s non-partisan staff. Under the 1980 legislation, which remains largely intact today, the non-partisan Legislative Services Bureau prepares a new districting plan which it then sends to the General Assembly. In drawing up their redistricting plan, the Legislative Services Bureau must consider established political subdivisions (towns, cities, counties); contiguousness; and compactness. The General Assembly is not permitted to make any changes; it must either approve or reject the plan. If the first plan is rejected, then a second plan is submitted by the Legislative Services Bureau. Once again, no amendments are allowed. If the second plan fails to pass, then a third plan is submitted. When it comes to the third plan, the General Assembly is allowed to make amendments.
This system has allowed Iowa to avoid redistricting litigation since the 1970s. It has also considerably de-politicized redistricting. In 1991 and 2001 the party in control (Democrats and Republicans respectively) approved plans that created double digit numbers of incumbent v. incumbent elections; threw the elections wide open; and resulted in the minority party taking control of the General Assembly.
Iowa goes into the 2012 election with a system that appears to have avoided many other state’s mistakes since 1962. However, this election may be an unusually difficult test of how non-partisan redistricting can be. Politics are reaching a fever pitch in Iowa, with a resurgent Republican party looking to take back the legislature and executive; a 2009 Iowa Supreme Court decision requiring equal marriage rights for gay couples producing talk of constitutional amendments and the removal of Supreme Court Justices; and the state’s central role in the Republican Party’s process of determining a nominee for President. Only time will tell if the General Assembly continues to defer to their non-partisan staff and resist the temptation to tamper with redistricting plans.
Chris Bettis is a third-year student at William and Mary Law School.