The dust has settled on redistricting in Iowa. The legislative debate is done, the approved plan received strong bipartisan support, and the governor has signed those new maps into law. Iowa has its new political boundaries for the next decade, starting with next year’s midterm elections.
Other states, including a couple just across the Mississippi River from Iowa, have not been so fortunate. In Wisconsin and Illinois, the redistricting process has been a highly partisan mess, and in Wisconsin’s case, still drags on.
The contrast speaks to the dangers of partisanship in decennial redistricting, and why Iowa’s process remains a model for the nation.
Iowa’s redistricting process is hailed for its nonpartisan nature. Nonpartisan analysts in the state’s Legislative Services Agency draw the maps, and state law forbids them from employing political considerations. Only after the maps are drawn do state lawmakers get involved, and even then they can only vote the maps up or down, with one exception.
That one exception did create perhaps a tinge of political intrigue in Iowa this year with Republicans in full control of state government. In Iowa’s process, if lawmakers reject the first two sets of proposed maps, they must accept the third. But they can also amend that third set of maps. Under unified control, a political party could, conceivably, put its thumbs on the scale by amending the those maps, thus interjecting partisanship into Iowa’s otherwise nonpartisan process.
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But that didn’t happen this year. State lawmakers rejected the first set of maps but approved the second. And the votes to accept the maps were near-unanimous.
The Wisconsin (Republicans) and Illinois (Democrats) state legislatures also are under single-party control. But in those states like many others, state lawmakers both draw and vote on the maps. What has taken place in those neighboring states has been sadly predictable: Republicans in Wisconsin and Democrats in Illinois have done everything in their power to draw new boundaries that benefit their respective parties.
Wisconsin Republicans worked off the same maps they approved 10 years ago, when they also had majorities in the legislature and held the governor’s office. Then, they drew districts that maximized their ability to win majorities in the statehouse, helping to ensure their party’s grip on the state capitol for a decade.
This time, Wisconsin has a Democratic governor, Tony Evers, who is expected to veto the proposed maps. That will send the issue to the state’s Supreme Court.
Illinois Democrats have been just as creative with their redistricting pencils, drawing maps that will increase their party’s stronghold over the state’s legislative and congressional districts. The new maps in Illinois would likely yield Democrats an additional seat in the U.S. House while Republicans would likely lose two, according to WTTW-TV, a public news station out of Chicago.
“Your maps make a farce of democracy and the process is a charade,” said Illinois Republican state Rep. Jeff Keicher, according to WTTW-TV, although that quote could just as likely have been attributed to a Wisconsin Democrat.
That’s what happens when the drawing of political boundaries is left to the people who will have to earn votes within those boundaries. The people who live in those places, who will be casting votes, become an afterthought. The primary objective becomes political survival.
That’s no way to run a representative government. That’s why Iowa’s system is rightly praised and should be duplicated wherever possible and protected here.
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Erin Murphy is the editor of the Lee Des Moines Bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.