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State Staffer: 'Entirely Unknown' How Iowa's Legislative Redistricting Process Will Proceed Due To Census Data Delays

Iowa Capitol with snow
Michael Leland
IPR file
It's "entirely unknown" how Iowa's legislative redistricting process will be conducted, due to critical delays in the release of Census data, a state staffer said Monday.

It’s “entirely unknown” how Iowa’s legislative redistricting process will be conducted, a state staffer said on Monday, due to extreme delays in the release of critical Census data brought on by the coronavirus crisis.

Iowa may soon find itself in a constitutional conundrum when it comes to carrying out the vital, once in a decade work of redrawing legislative districts.

The Census Bureau is months behind schedule on releasing the updated population numbers needed to redraw district maps, announcing that that data will be available by Sep. 30. That’s weeks after the constitutional deadline for Iowa’s general assembly to finish the redistricting process.

According to the state constitution, the Legislature “shall complete the apportionment” by Sep. 1. If the plans don’t become law by Sep. 15, it’s up to the state Supreme Court to take over the process.

Speaking at a meeting of the state’s Temporary Redistricting Advisory Commission on Monday, Ed Cook of the Legislative Services Agency said he doesn’t have “any idea” what that process will look like.

“How they…agree to address that is entirely unknown. And so it’s entirely…at this point we don’t have any idea how legislative redistricting is going to be conducted,” Cook said.

The process of redrawing congressional district lines is not subject to the same September deadlines.

Commission members probed Cook for more guidance during the meeting Monday.

“I don't mean this facetiously but has anybody told the courts?” asked Commissioner Dave Roederer.

Cook, who has served as a legislative staffer on three redistricting cycles, deferred, saying any potential communication with the court is up to the Legislature, not the Legislative Services Agency or LSA.

“I mean I’m sure they are more than aware of the fact that the Census delays is going to impact this particular constitutional requirement,” Cook said. “How it’s going to be addressed at this point is entirely unknown.”

Asked how the Supreme Court would approach redistricting, Iowa Judicial Branch Communications Director Steve Davis said the chief justice “cannot speculate or comment on pending or future cases”.

Unlike many other states which empower partisan legislatures to directly redraw their own districts, Iowa’s redistricting process is considered “unique”, granting the responsibility of redrawing congressional and legislative districts to the non-partisan staff of the LSA, subject to approval by the Legislature and the governor. Additionally, the use of political data is prohibited in Iowa’s redistricting process.

Commissioner Deidre DeJear praised the expertise of Cook and other LSA staffers and raised concerns about whether they will remain involved in the process if the September deadline cannot be met.

“You and your team it seems like have a combined nearly 100 years of experience in putting this together. And I think that experience means a lot and it's paramount to the process,” DeJear told Cook. “If this is a worst case scenario where the authority in creating these maps is turned over to the Iowa Supreme Court, is there a world in which your team is still working and doing the work as you have been previously, with the Iowa Supreme Court?”

At this point, Cook couldn’t definitively say.

“It’s complete speculation,” he replied.

But Cook noted that during another redistricting cycle in 1972 when the Supreme Court stepped in after deeming maps unconstitutional, Legislative Services staff remained involved in the process.

“There is that experience back in 1972,” Cook said. “What the court would end up doing this time? It’s entirely…I have no idea.”

At Monday’s meeting, the four members of the Temporary Redistricting Advisory Commission or TRAC adopted its rules of procedure.

The commission had been slated to nominate and vote on a fifth member but commissioners decided to defer that until next week in order to contact more potential nominees and gauge their interest.

The commission is slated to meet again on March 1 at 2 p.m. and will consider nominees then.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter