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Redistricting Has Begun In Iowa. Here's What You Should Know About The Process.

John Pemble
IPR file
State officials started drawing new boundaries this week for Iowa’s legislative and congressional districts.

State officials started drawing new boundaries this week for Iowa’s legislative and congressional districts.

The state received 2020 U.S. Census data Aug. 12 after months of delays, and a key state official said the data was delivered in a usable format on Monday, kicking off the once-in-a-decade redistricting process.

Redrawing Iowa’s 100 state House of Representatives districts, 50 state Senate districts, and four congressional districts can have a significant impact on Iowans’ political representation.

Districts may become more or less competitive through this process. For example, if a Democrat has always easily won a certain state legislative district, redrawing the district boundaries could make the next election much more competitive, or even open up a new path for a Republican candidate to win.

Elected officials are also required to live in their district, and redistricting can sometimes exclude an elected official’s home from their own district. That means the person either has to move, run in a different district, or just not run for re-election.

Iowa’s redistricting process begins when the state receives U.S. Census data. Staff with the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency has 45 days to draw a first set of maps and submit them to the legislature. Then, the five-member Temporary Redistricting Advisory Commission has 14 days to hold at least three public hearings on the maps, and to write and submit their recommendations to the legislature.

At least three days after that report is submitted, the Iowa Legislature can vote to approve or reject the first set of maps. Lawmakers cannot make changes to the first set of maps. If they reject the first set of maps, LSA draws a second set, which lawmakers can again vote to approve or reject with no changes.

If lawmakers reject the second set of maps, LSA draws a third set. At that point, the state House and Senate may make changes to the map, or they can approve the map as is.

The Iowa Constitution has a deadline of Sept. 1 for lawmakers to approve new legislative districts and Sept. 15 for the new maps to be signed by the governor and enacted. This deadline does not exist for drawing new congressional districts.

Because the release of U.S. Census data was delayed this year, a key state official says Iowa will not meet that deadline. LSA Senior Legal Counsel Ed Cook said Tuesday the first set of maps will be done by Sept. 16. That’s in line with how long it has taken in the past to draw the first set of maps.

But this throws the question of what to do about the deadline to the Iowa Supreme Court. The court released a statement in April.

“If the general assembly is not able to meet the constitutional deadline, the supreme court tentatively plans to meet its constitutional responsibility by implementing a process which permits, to the extent possible, the redistricting framework presently set forth in Iowa Code chapter 42 to proceed after September 15,” the statement reads in part.

The statement does not say whether the court will allow lawmakers to carry out their typical role in the process by voting to accept or reject proposed maps. And a spokesperson for the Iowa Judicial Branch said this week the court does not have additional information to share.

Some officials involved in the redistricting process appear confident the Iowa Supreme Court will allow the state legislature to vote on the maps. A special legislative session could start in late September or early October.

Iowa’s redistricting process is considered a model for the rest of the country, in that it has little to no room for “gerrymandering,” or allowing the drawing of districts with political considerations.

Iowa law doesn’t allow LSA to consider the addresses of current elected officials or the voting patterns of residents when drawing new district boundaries. They focus on population numbers first—trying to get each district as close as possible to an equal amount of residents—and must avoid splitting counties and towns into separate districts. Iowa districts must also be “compact,” or as close to a square or rectangular shape as possible.

In some other states, districts can be drawn in all kinds of shapes to try to keep incumbents in office, or to strengthen or weaken the chances of a certain political party winning the district.

Some Iowa Democrats are concerned that the Republican-controlled legislature will reject the first two sets of maps this year to get to a third set of maps, which lawmakers could then amend. But it’s not clear if that will happen.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter