The redistricting question Iowa Republicans need to be asked

State Representative Pat Grassley, who will become Iowa House speaker when the legislature reconvenes in January, is the latest high-ranking Iowa Republican to promise not to change our state’s redistricting process. That’s good.

Unfortunately, GOP legislative leaders and Governor Kim Reynolds have not yet answered an essential follow-up question.

“I WILL NOT SUPPORT CHANGING REDISTRICTING”

Moderator David Yepsen raised the topic during the October 25 edition of Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press” program.

Yepsen: What about the issue of redistricting reform? Iowa has a law, a lot of people, Democrats particularly, are afraid Republicans are going to come in and try to change that law so that they can gerrymander the state. Are you going to touch the redistricting law?

Grassley: I’ve been very clear that I will not support changing redistricting. If anyone, I went through probably the most expensive primary as a sitting legislator that anyone has ever been a part of, if anyone had any problems with it, I feel like I probably could qualify for that. But I don’t think we should change the process. We have a good process in the state and I don’t–those concerns, I think, have been greatly overblown. I don’t know, again, for my opinion I do not support those changes.

Grassley was referring to the fact that the nonpartisan map drawn up in 2011 placed him and fellow GOP lawmaker Annette Sweeney in the same Iowa House district. He won the 2012 primary easily, but it was a hard-fought and negative race, in large part because major GOP donor Bruce Rastetter and Sweeney are longtime friends. (Sweeney has served in the Iowa Senate since winning a 2018 special election.)

It’s reassuring that the incoming speaker doesn’t plan to change Iowa’s redistricting law. Reynolds and Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver made a similar pledge in July. The Senate’s second-ranking Republican, President Charles Schneider, told me years ago he would “never support” gerrymandering.

I take them at their word that they won’t launch a surprise attack during the 2020 session–unlike this year, when they overhauled the judicial selection process that had been in place since 1962, even though Reynolds and top lawmakers hadn’t campaigned on that issue in 2018.

The problem is that current Iowa law would not prevent a Republican trifecta from gerrymandering this state.

WILL YOU PROMISE TO ENACT A NONPARTISAN MAP?

As Bleeding Heartland has discussed here and here, Iowa Code Chapter 42.3(3) allows the state legislature to amend the third map produced by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency. If Republicans retain total control of state government following the 2020 elections, they could reject the first two non-partisan maps (which can only be voted up or down, not amended), then alter the third to a gerrymander.

Grassley and his colleagues may have no current plans to go that route. But they haven’t seen the new maps yet. Democratic performance has improved in parts of Iowa that are rapidly growing while declining in many areas that are stagnating or losing population.

I believe that once Republican lawmakers see nonpartisan maps–which will likely pit several GOP incumbents against each other while creating a bunch of new suburban seats Democrats can play for–gerrymandering will look attractive.

Journalists and other Iowans who have the opportunity to question Grassley, Whitver, or incoming House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl should ask not, “Will you change the redistricting process?” but rather, “Will you commit to passing a nonpartisan map with no amendments?”

Likewise, Reynolds needs to be asked not, “Would you support changing Iowa’s redistricting law?” but rather, “Will you promise only to sign a nonpartisan redistricting plan in 2021, and never to sign any amended map of political boundaries?”

Every time I’ve written about this issue, some Republicans have accused me of needlessly sounding the alarm. I promise to stop raising concerns about gerrymandering as soon as House and Senate leaders unequivocally promise never to amend any nonpartisan map in 2021, and the governor promises never to sign any amended map into law.

P.S.- Former Republican lawmaker Darrell Hanson has argued that due to legal requirements and a 1972 Iowa Supreme Court ruling, “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.” I’m not confident the current Iowa Supreme Court justices would view this question as their predecessors did.

Top image: Iowa House Speaker-select Pat Grassley, in a screen shot from the October 25 edition of Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press” program.

  • To any Iowa journalists who may read this column...

    …and may have a chance to ask the questions recommended above — please ask them! These BH concerns may have seemed unnecessary if they had been expressed, say, twenty years ago. They sure as heck seem necessary now.

  • Not the first time

    This is not the first time this blog has implored other journalists to ask better questions. If the usual Iowa journalists think it has been unfair to deny press credentials to Belin, they could help out by making sure her potential questions actually get asked by one of them. Reporters who decline to ask this gerrymandering question as Belin has phrased it, are complicit in the GOP effort to wall her off.

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