Democratic election bill would preserve Iowa's redistricting

Iowa would be exempt from one part of a wide-ranging election reform bill the U.S. House approved on March 3 on a mostly party-line 220 to 210 vote. This document explains each section of H.R.1, also known as the For the People Act. In her explainer for Vox, Ella Nilsen provided bullet points on the main provisions, which fall into three broad categories: “expanding voting rights, implementing campaign finance reform, and beefing up ethics laws for members of Congress.”

The bill won’t advance in the U.S. Senate unless Democrats limit the use of the filibuster, which at least two senators now oppose. But if they come around, President Joe Biden has indicated he would sign the bill.

H.R. 1 would ban partisan gerrymandering for federal elections, requiring states to use independent redistricting commissions to draw Congressional districts instead. Representative Cindy Axne (IA-03) successfully advocated for language that would allow Iowa to keep the nonpartisan process used here since 1981.

SAFEGUARDING IOWA’S CURRENT APPROACH

The relevant portion stipulates that the bill’s redistricting section

does not apply to the State of Iowa, so long as congressional redistricting in such State is carried out in accordance with a plan developed by the Iowa Legislative Services Agency with the assistance of a Temporary Redistricting Advisory Commission, under law which was in effect for the most recent congressional redistricting carried out in the State prior to the date of the enactment of this Act and which remains in effect continuously on and after the date of the enactment of this Act.

The 2019 version of H.R. 1 included the same language. It was carefully crafted to give Iowa an exemption only if lawmakers adopted one of the nonpartisan maps drawn by the Legislative Services Agency.

Current Iowa law allows legislators to vote down the first two proposed maps and amend the third to a gerrymander. Republican statehouse leaders refused to rule out that scenario when asked about the prospect in January, which alarmed many Democrats, given the large GOP majorities in the Iowa House and Senate.

In a normal year, the Legislative Services Agency would already be working on Congressional and legislative maps to release on April 1. But the U.S. Census Bureau may not send states updated population data until September. The delay could preclude any GOP effort to gerrymander Iowa’s map, since the state constitution gives the Iowa Supreme Court authority to take over redistricting for legislative districts if a new map is not approved by September 15.

The judicial branch has not clarified how Iowa Supreme Court justices might exercise that power, but I doubt even a conservative court would want to oversee a partisan process for drawing maps.

REDISTRICTING ADVISORY COMMISSION STUCK ON SQUARE ONE

In related news, Iowa’s Temporary Redistricting Advisory Commission met for the third time on March 8. This body does not draw maps. Its main duty is to organize a series of meetings where the public can provide input on maps proposed by the Legislative Services Agency.

Iowa law calls for the majority and minority leaders in each legislative chamber to name one person to the commission. This year, Democrats chose Deidre DeJear, who was the 2018 nominee for secretary of state, and Ian Russell, a politically active attorney in the Quad Cities. Republicans chose former House Minority Leader Chris Hagenow and Dave Roederer, who recently retired as director of the Iowa Department of Management.

The Temporary Redistricting Advisory Commission’s four members are supposed to elect a fifth person to chair the commission by February 15, according to code. However, the commission’s first meeting wasn’t even held until February 22 of this year. They deferred discussions about a fifth member until the second meeting on March 1.

To conform to Iowa’s gender balance law, the fifth commissioner must be a woman. On March 1, Roederer and Hagenow nominated Carmine Boal, a former Republican state legislator who later served as Iowa House chief clerk. Russell didn’t suggest anyone, and DeJear submitted two names: Terese Grant, who heads the League of Women Voters in Iowa, and Jazmin Newton-Butt, a Davenport attorney who leads a local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens. Commissioners deferred a vote on the fifth member to give colleagues time to review resumes and speak with the nominees.

During the March 8 meeting, Hagenow and Roederer again advocated for Boal, whom they characterized as fair, efficient, impartial, and experienced in state government. (I found her to be highly partisan and non-responsive in my own interactions with her while she was House chief clerk.)

Russell and DeJear argued for bringing more diverse perspectives to the commission, noting that Boal is a former Republican legislator, like Hagenow. DeJear added that the commission is charged with getting public feedback, so it’s important to find someone with experience engaging the public “in a more nonpartisan fashion.”

The League of Women Voters is dedicated to nonpartisan engagement, so on that basis, DeJear nominated Grant. She and Russell both voted for her, but the Republicans voted against. Hagenow and Roederer then nominated Boal, but they were her only supporters; Russell voted no, and DeJear abstained. In further discussion, the Republicans seemed reluctant to offer any names other than Boal.

With no obvious end to the stalemate in sight, the Temporary Redistricting Advisory Commission again deferred a decision on a fifth member until their next scheduled meeting on March 22.

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