Iowa Republican legislators want to avoid leaving redistricting in the hands of the Iowa Supreme Court, Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver indicated during a March 12 legislative forum in Ankeny. In fact, GOP leaders may follow the state of Ohio’s lead in suing the U.S. Census Bureau to obtain the 2020 population data sooner.
The bureau has said it will send states the numbers they need to conduct redistricting by September 30, more than seven months later than usual. Under Iowa law, the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency (LSA) is to submit plans for new legislative and Congressional districts by April 1. The state constitution calls for the legislature to adopt a map of Iowa House and Senate districts by September 1. If the map hasn’t become law by September 15, authority over redistricting moves to the Iowa Supreme Court, which is to have a new legislative map drawn by December 31.
Whitver told the Ankeny audience he didn’t know how Republicans would approach the problem, adding, “We’re looking at all options, and everything from suing the Census Bureau to make sure that we get that data to any other options on the table.”
The Iowa Judicial Branch has declined to comment on how Supreme Court justices might approach redistricting. The least controversial way would be for the court to direct the LSA to draw nonpartisan maps, using criteria from current state law. The legislature could be called back for a special session to consider the plan, but that wouldn’t be required.
Iowa’s constitution doesn’t specify any deadline for adopting a map of U.S. House districts. Traditionally, the LSA has drawn a Congressional map first, then worked from that plan to create legislative maps so that all state House districts and most state Senate districts are fully contained within a Congressional district.
Whitver said Republicans are “looking at all options right now to try to meet our constitutional duty, but right now there’s not a lot of good options on the table.” Why the hurry? The Iowa Supreme Court justices are thoughtful people and surely capable of stepping into the role the constitution provides for them.
The point of Iowa’s model redistricting process is to produce fair maps, with districts that are close to equal in population, balancing other concerns such as compactness and contiguity. You can’t do the job properly without the most accurate numbers the federal government can provide. Suing the Census Bureau is unlikely to produce the population data very soon, but even if it could, the resulting map would be inferior to one created using the final, verified 2020 census numbers.
The unprecedented delay in this year’s redistricting is bad luck for GOP lawmakers who might otherwise have used their trifecta to adopt a partisan map. Iowa law requires up-or-down votes (with no amendments) on the first two nonpartisan maps drawn by the LSA but allows the legislature to amend the third map. Democrats have long feared Republicans would exploit that provision to create a gerrymander that guarantees their party’s majorities would endure throughout the 2020s. Whitver and Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley pointedly declined to rule out adopting a partisan map when asked about the prospect in January.
That scenario is impossible if the House and Senate don’t receive a third map before the September 1 constitutional deadline, though. At this writing, Republicans won’t even be able to vote on one map before the Supreme Court takes over the process. They should make their peace with that instead of filing lawsuits in search of less accurate census numbers.
UPDATE: Grassley commented further on this issue on March 26 as a guest on the Iowa PBS program “Iowa Press.”
[Radio Iowa’s O.Kay] Henderson: We’ve got about a minute left. Real quickly, will you sue the U.S. Census Bureau to get the data so that you can redistrict, redraw the map for Iowa legislative districts?
Grassley: I think as this process unfolds, we’ve seen a little bit of action in the last couple of weeks from the Census Bureau. So the answer to that question, I’m not going to say yes or no, I’m going to say all options need to stay on the table. We have the best system in the entire country and we need to make sure that we maintain it that way. It’s non-partisan. So I would say at this point in time every option needs to be on the table. I would hope that we could find other solutions though.