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EDITORIAL: Iowa redistricting can show politics beyond party

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When statesman Otto von Bismarck uttered his famous maxim “Politics is the art of the possible,” he was talking about having to compromise, historians say. But compromise seems increasingly disfavored among elected officials in this country, discarded in favor of stretching laws and other rules beyond their limit to consolidate the most power possible.

Examples abound, but the clearest is likely the every-decade exercise of drawing new congressional and legislative districts. “Map proposals show how parties hope to gain from new congressional boundaries,” the Washington Post reports in a typical headline. In many states, fairness is rarely a virtue in practice — certainly less important than, say, keeping incumbents from having to move.

Gerrymandering to create deeply red and deeply blue districts is a primary driver of the polarization that plagues our politics. Primaries in such districts attract candidates that run to the far extremes of their party’s values. And the winners go to their statehouses and Washington, D.C., with the express aim of never reaching across the party aisle to compromise. The result is gridlock. It’s why Congress and too many state legislatures don’t work anymore.

Iowa is well-known and widely lauded for taking a different approach since 1980. Our constitution and state laws prescribe the primacy of population equity, respect for county and city boundaries, and recognizable shapes when state employees in the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency draw maps. They don’t look at the addresses of incumbent U.S. representatives and state lawmakers when drawing boundaries.

Iowans were given the chance to share their thoughts online now about the proposed maps delivered to lawmakers last Thursday. Three virtual public forums were also held this week, the last today. Then a special session of the Legislature convenes Oct. 5 to consider whether to approve the plan. (Normally all this is handled in the spring of years ending in 1, but COVID-19 contributed to delays in the release of census data, and the Iowa Supreme Court prudently said it would allow the Legislature to continue its work despite a provision of the constitution putting redistricting in the court’s hands if it’s not completed by September.)

Lawmakers can evaluate the divisions however they see fit; they can approve them or ask the Legislative Services Agency to try again. After three rejections, they are permitted to adjust the lines themselves. That has never happened in four uses of this system.

Republicans control the governor’s office and both chambers of the Legislature, and three of Iowa’s four U.S. representatives are Republicans. The initial proposal puts Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and the Quad Cities in the same congressional district — a prospect that voting patterns suggest would reliably produce two Republican members of Congress and one Democratic one, with the district that includes central Iowa closer to a toss-up. It keeps logical county pairs such as Linn-Johnson and Polk-Dallas together in districts.

Most GOP lawmakers were circumspect hours after the maps were released, and the legislative boundary implications are complicated to sort out. But it would hardly be a surprise if Republican leaders want to see if a second try produces a more competitive congressional map.

That’s their right. Still, bipartisan approval of the first map would be a welcome symbolic affirmation of the wisdom of the 1980 Legislature to curtail partisan influence on the map drawing and give Iowans an equal voice in the election of their representatives.

If Republican legislators can’t bring themselves to stomach the first map, we call on them to pass the second or third, resisting the temptation to take up pens and draws politically favorable lines themselves. That would end Iowa’s reign as a beacon of electoral equity, where the art of politics remains possible, and toss us amid places where compromise for the good of all is a quaint memory.

This editorial was first published in the Des Moines Register on Sept. 19. It is republished here through a partnership with the Associated Press.

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