Midwestern states prepare for redistricting in 2011: Iowa’s process remains a unique model in region

States around the Midwest are preparing to redistrict congressional and legislative seats, and Iowa's process remains a unique model in the region -- and the nation.

Stateline Midwest, Volume 20, No. 1- January 2011

As the legislative session began in Iowa, state officials started the process of redrawing the state’s legislative and congressional districts.

But in Des Moines, the process won’t be the same as it is in other Midwestern state capitals, where legislators get the first crack at reconfiguring political districts based on new population data.

Instead, Iowa’s process tasks the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency with developing a redistricting plan for both state legislative and congressional seats. After staff has developed a map, the plan must be approved or rejected — without modification — by the legislature. If the legislature fails to approve two plans, it may amend the third map as it would any other bill. The plan must also be approved by the governor.

The impetus for adopting this unique process decades ago was influenced in part by a 1972 state Supreme Court decision that threw out a redistricting plan developed by the legislature. The plan was challenged on grounds that the districts varied too much in size, and the court was charged with redrawing districts for use in the 1970s.

Looking for nonpartisan assistance in putting together the plan, the court turned to the Legislative Service Bureau (now the LSA) for expertise, says Ed Cook, legal counsel for the agency.

In 1980, with the next round of redistricting approaching, lawmakers decided it was time to change the state’s process in order to avoid further intervention by the courts. And they determined that the nonpartisan LSA should permanently take over the drawing of the maps.

“[The court] had used the agency to draw the lines [before], so we were basically a nonpartisan, trusted entity,” Cook says.

What’s more, Cook says, because they didn’t want redistricting plans to end up being thrown out again by the Supreme Court, authors of the 1980 legislation used the court’s opinion to determine what criteria to use in drawing the districts.

The LSA is required by law to disregard incumbents’ addresses, the political affiliations of voters, previous election results and other demographic information (except basic population counts) when drawing the maps. It must also strive to make districts compact and keep cities and counties entirely within one district. The agency uses computer software to create the new maps.

In the three rounds of redistricting that have occurred since the 1980 law was passed, legislators have adopted one of the plans submitted by the LSA. None of the final plans has been challenged in court.

Iowa’s process is unique both in the region and in the nation. In most Midwestern states, lawmakers are given the task of drawing maps. The other exception is Ohio, where state legislative districts are redrawn by a five-member panel of state officials (the legislature handles congressional redistricting).

Critics of the more common method (allowing legislators to draw the maps) say that the political party in the majority can draw districts based on political data, making districts “safe” for incumbents.

In recent years, most Midwestern states have considered changing their process. Last year, Kansas legislators considered adopting the Iowa model of redistricting. In other states, including Minnesota, Illinois and South Dakota, bills would have turned the process over to a commission of non-legislators.