How worried should Democrats be about Iowa's 2021 redistricting?

“Leaders vow to keep Iowa’s redistricting system,” declared the headline above Rod Boshart’s latest article for the Cedar Rapids Gazette and other large newspapers.

But did Governor Kim Reynolds and top Republican lawmakers really make that promise? And could they gerrymander our state in 2021 without altering the current process?


Boshart reported,

“I have no intention whatsoever” of changing Iowa’s redistricting approach, the Republican governor said in a recent interview. “We are a model for other states to follow. It could not be a fairer process, and so I have no inclination at all to change that.” […]

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said his GOP caucus has “no plans” to make any changes to Iowa’s redistricting process, which has been managed at the state level for decades.

Kudos to Boshart for asking the question. The governor’s staff have ignored my repeated attempts (for years) to get Reynolds on the record about redistricting.

That said, a more accurate headline would read, “Leaders say they have no current plans to change Iowa redistricting.”

Republicans didn’t talk last summer about overhauling Iowa’s judicial selection process, which had been in place for more than 50 years. That didn’t stop them from exploiting a loophole in the constitution to change the system this year. Reynolds didn’t call for more power to pick judges in her Condition of the State address, but her staff later lobbied intensely to secure enough Republican votes to pass the bill.

Similarly, Iowa GOP leaders didn’t speak publicly last year about limiting Attorney General Tom Miller’s powers. That didn’t stop them from slipping unprecedented language into a budget bill near the end of this year’s legislative session. Reynolds had never publicly called for legislative action against Miller. Yet she praised the Republican effort to kneecap the attorney general and item-vetoed the provision only after getting Miller to voluntarily cede some of his authority to her.

“I have no intention” and “I have no inclination” fall short of a solid commitment from Reynolds to veto any bill that would give the majority party more control over redistricting.

Saying his caucus has “no plans” is not the same as Whitver promising never to allow a Senate floor vote on any bill that would change our nonpartisan process or the standards to which political maps must conform.

It’s not clear whether Boshart sought comment from House Speaker Linda Upmeyer or Majority Leader Chris Hagenow, whom his article doesn’t mention. The House Republicans he quoted as downplaying any risk of tampering with the system do not call the shots for the GOP caucus or control which bills reach the floor.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume Iowa Republicans are nothing like the GOP lawmakers who carried out sneak attacks on democracy in North Carolina, Michigan, and Wisconsin after the last two general elections. Let’s say the headline over Boshart’s story didn’t overstate the case.

If Republicans did vow never to change any part of Iowa’s redistricting process and are true to their word, is gerrymandering off the table for 2021?


As Bleeding Heartland discussed in more detail here, Iowa Code Chapter 42 charges the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency (LSA) with drawing up maps of Congressional and state legislative districts after each U.S. census. The mapmakers must create districts with a “population as nearly equal as practicable,” that meet standards for compactness, and when possible, do not divide cities and counties.

When considering the first map, and the second map if the first is rejected, state lawmakers must vote either yes or no, without amendment. If they reject the first two options, the third map LSA prepares is subject to amendment.

Computer programs allow increasingly sophisticated gerrymanders. If Republicans continue to control both legislative chambers after the 2020 elections, they may be tempted to alter the third map in order to protect their incumbents and minimize Democratic prospects in newly-created suburban districts. (Most counties now represented by Republicans have lost population since 2010.)

I’m not the only person concerned about that outcome. State Senator Herman Quirmbach observed in a July 5 email that Republicans wouldn’t need to change state law to lock in majorities for the next decade.

They just would have to be willing to wait out the process by voting down the first two unamendable plans (per 42.3 (1)&(2)) to get to a third plan in 42.3 (3), which can be amended.

Now it is true that the requirements of 42.4 (1)-(4) would still apply, limiting the population variance between districts, respecting political subdivisions, and creating contiguous and compact districts. There is, however, a considerable degree of subjectivity to some of these provisions, especially to the compactness language. Chapter 42.4 (5) says that they couldn’t use demographic and voting history information, but who is going to check? How would anybody be able to determine what may have gone into an amendment, especially if provided by some entity out of state?

What we really need is a new pledge–that they will choose one of the LSA-prepared plans and will not amend the plan if it goes to a third round.

Reynolds hasn’t kept her 2018 campaign promise to hold regular weekly news conferences, but her latest public schedule lists a “media availability” following an event on July 10. Some reporter should ask her to clarify whether she will insist on no amendments to any nonpartisan map in 2021 and no changes to current standards for redistricting plans. The House speaker and Senate majority leader should be pressed on the same point.

Former Republican State Representative Darrell Hanson told Bleeding Heartland a few months ago that amending the third map to a gerrymander is easier said than done. Based on his experience analyzing possible maps as a House member in 1981 and 1991, Hanson speculated that

Because of a combination of state law, constitutional requirements, and a 1972 Iowa Supreme Court decision, by the time the legislature gets to amend the 3rd plan, the universe of available options should be extremely narrow.

The most important impediments are the constitutional requirement that counties must not be split between districts and the requirement for the legislature to select a plan that is “as nearly equal as practicable” in terms of population differences. By the time the legislature gets to offer a substantive amendment to a staff-generated plan, there will be 3 staff-generated plans before the legislature, all of which will presumably meet the minimum state standards. As I understand it, in order to adopt its own plan and have a chance of winning a court challenge, the population differences in the legislature’s alternative must be at least as low as any of the 3 staff-generated plans.

Give[n] that the staff will almost certainly try to minimize the population deviation in plans 1-3, I doubt there will be any room for the legislature to adopt a plan of its own that would pass legal muster AND provide a partisan advantage to the majority party. That would especially be true for congressional districts where the inability to split counties and the clustering of large population counties in eastern Iowa really limits the universe of available options, but it would probably also be unlikely for state legislative districts.

Indeed, the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously held in 1972 that a redistricting plan violated Article III, Section 34 of our state’s constitution because lawmakers used a “de minimis” approach to draw the map (thereby protecting incumbents), and agreed on a plan that deviated too much from population equality and failed the compactness standard.

Conservatives now dominate the Iowa Supreme Court and tend to defer to the legislature. So a majority might not strike down a GOP gerrymander after the next census. But Iowa’s constitution gives the high court grounds to reject an amended map drawn to safeguard incumbents, or featuring less compact districts or a greater population deviation than the LSA’s handiwork.

Bottom line: the only way to guarantee a fully nonpartisan process in 2021 is to end Republican dominance in the Iowa House next November. For that reason, the 2020 state House elections will probably be more important than whether Donald Trump carries Iowa again.

Democrats need a net gain of four House seats for control of the chamber, an attainable goal with good candidate recruitment, especially if some Republicans in competitive areas retire. A net gain of three House seats, resulting in a 50-50 split, could be sufficient to block redistricting shenanigans, assuming party leaders agree to House rules like those that governed the 25-25 Iowa Senate in 2005 and 2006.

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  • Thanks for that "bottom line" reality check

    I hope many of us in Iowa will understand, agree, and put our time, effort, and donations into House-flipping.