U.S. census delay should not derail Iowa redistricting

The U.S. Census Bureau is unlikely to deliver state population totals on its usual timetable, Michael Wines and Emily Bazelon reported for the New York Times on November 19. The news was encouraging for those who support an accurate, complete census, because a delay beyond January 20 would stop the Trump administration's unconstitutional plan "to remove unauthorized immigrants from the count for the first time in history, leaving an older and whiter population as the basis for divvying up [U.S.] House seats [...]."

I wondered how an adjusted timetable could affect Iowa's redistricting. Could Republicans who retained control of the Iowa House and Senate use a delay as a pretext for bypassing our state's current nonpartisan process?

Not without changing state law.

The Census Bureau normally produces state population totals by December 31 of the year ending in zero. Citing three unnamed bureau officials, Wines and Bazelon reported, the bureau "told the Commerce Department that a growing number of snags in the massive data-processing operation that generates population totals had delayed the completion of population calculations at least until Jan. 26, and perhaps to mid-February."

Under Iowa Code Chapter 42, the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency (LSA) is to obtain data from the Census Bureau by December 31 of the year ending in zero, for use in preparing maps and "necessary descriptions of geographic and political units." Subsections of that chapter spell out principles to be used in drawing new political maps, as well as criteria that cannot be considered. The code also calls for the LSA to deliver "identical bills embodying a plan of legislative and congressional districting" no later than April 1 of the year ending in one.

Can the LSA finish the job on time if the Census Bureau delivers the Iowa population data a month or more after December 31? Fortunately, state law accounts for that possibility in Chapter 42.3(1)(b). If "the corresponding topologically integrated geographic encoding and referencing data file for that population data are not available to the legislative services agency on or before February 15," the deadline for submitting a plan to the Iowa House and Senate "shall be extended" by however many days after February 15 the file arrived.

For instance, if the LSA receives the data file on February 22, the first maps would have to be delivered to the legislature by April 8 (seven days after April 1). If the Census Bureau doesn't get the data file to the LSA until four weeks after February 15, the new deadline for submitting a plan would be April 29.

In other words, Republican leaders can't decide to draw maps themselves, on the grounds that the LSA failed to produce a map by April 1.

State law requires the Iowa House and Senate to bring the bill containing the first redistricting plan to a vote "expeditiously," and legislators must vote up or down with no amendments. If the plan fails to win a majority in either chamber, or if it passes and is vetoed by the governor, then the LSA has up to 35 days to develop a new set of Congressional and legislative district maps. The second plan is also subject to an up or down vote in each chamber, with no amendments allowed. If that plan fails in the legislature or is vetoed by the governor, the LSA has another 35 days to develop a third redistricting plan.

The Iowa House or Senate are allowed to amend the third map, which is why I've tried for years, mostly without success, to get Governor Kim Reynolds and Republican legislative leaders on the record about their intentions for redistricting. Many Iowans are not aware that under current state law, legislators could vote down the first two maps and amend the third to a gerrymander.

In 2017, then House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow and State Senator Charles Schneider, who later became the Iowa Senate president, unequivocally ruled out any gerrymandering after 2020. However, both Hagenow and Schneider retired this year, so they won't be calling the shots in the next legislative session.

Reynolds, Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, and current House Speaker Pat Grassley all said in 2018 they had no intention to change Iowa's redistricting system. They have not answered a crucial follow-up question, though: will they commit to approving a nonpartisan map without amendment?

Since the New York Times covered the likely census delay, I've posed that question to Grassley, Whitver, and the second-ranking Republicans in each chamber (House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl and Senate President Jake Chapman). I also asked whether they can confirm House or Senate Republicans will not substantially change the redistricting process outlined in Iowa Code Chapter 42, even if there is a delay in receiving demographic information from the Census Bureau in 2021.

None has replied to my inquiry so far. I will update this post as needed.

Top photo of 2020 census form and envelope is by "Lost in the Midwest" and available via Shutterstock.

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