Iowa lawmakers to receive first redistricting plan by September 16

Iowa’s Legislative Services Agency (LSA) intends to submit the first set of proposed Congressional and legislative maps to the state House and Senate by Thursday, September 16.

The agency’s senior legal counsel Ed Cook announced the timing during an August 17 meeting of the Temporary Redistricting Advisory Commission (TRAC), which will organize public hearings on the proposed maps and submit a report to state lawmakers summarizing the feedback.

NONPARTISAN STAFF READY TO START DRAWING MAPS

Cook said the LSA’s redistricting software vendor has been working with the population data released by the U.S. Census Bureau on August 12 and sent information to the LSA late in the day on August 16. Cook anticipated LSA staff would be able to start working on maps on August 17, after installing new vendor software.

Under Iowa Code Chapter 42, the LSA has 45 days to submit legislative and Congressional maps to the state legislature, after the Census Bureau has provided population data. Cook said the goal is to complete that work in a shorter time frame this year, given the delays in the process. He did not anticipate having the first redistricting plan ready much earlier than September 16, though he didn’t rule out finalizing the plan a few days before that time.

PUBLIC HEARINGS REQUIRED ON PROPOSED MAPS

After the LSA releases its first proposed maps, TRAC must organize at least three public hearings on the plan. Those have traditionally been in-person meetings in different Iowa Congressional districts. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the commission may opt to schedule virtual hearings next month instead. Members did not approve a public hearing schedule during their August 17 meeting; they will discuss the matter when they convene again next week.

During the last round of redistricting in Iowa, the LSA released its first proposal on March 31, 2011. TRAC held four public hearings during the first week of April and submitted their report to the legislature on April 11. If the commission followed a similar schedule this year, they would organize hearings during the week of September 20 and send recommendations to the Iowa House and Senate around September 27.

Under state law, the Iowa House and Senate must wait at least three days after receiving TRAC’s report before voting on proposed maps. In 2011, both chambers took up the plans as soon as they could and approved the maps on April 14, with just one dissenting vote in the Senate and seven in the House. Governor Terry Branstad signed the redistricting plan into law on April 19.

Depending on how long it takes TRAC to complete their work, state lawmakers may be able to vote on new maps as soon as September 30.

IOWA SUPREME COURT WON’T REVEAL PLANS

One obvious wrinkle: the Iowa Constitution gives the Iowa Supreme Court authority over legislative redistricting if a new map has not been enacted by September 15. Republican leaders of the Iowa House and Senate have indicated they plan to vote on new legislative maps, even though they would have no authority to do so after September 15. A statement the Iowa Supreme Court released in April did not clarify whether they would seek a legislative seal of approval for any plan before enactment.

The third-ranking Iowa House Republican told a conservative website this month,

The Iowa Supreme Court has “signaled” to legislators that it will leave redistricting decisions up to them because the delays are not Iowa legislators’ doing, Speaker Pro Tempore Rep. John Wills, R-Spirit Lake, told The Center Square in a phone interview.

“They [the justices] don’t feel like it’s within their purview,” Wills said.

Asked again whether Supreme Court justices have privately assured GOP leaders they will have a say on legislative maps after September 15, the Iowa Judicial Branch communications director Steve Davis told Bleeding Heartland, “Legally and constitutionally, the supreme court cannot commit to a future course of action. Additionally, at the present time, the supreme court does not anticipate answering additional questions or making further statements on the subject of redistricting.”

Normally, the chief justice would speak for the court when communicating with legislators. Bleeding Heartland’s request for written communication between Chief Justice Susan Christensen and Iowa House and Senate leaders turned up no responsive records, according to Davis. He did not respond to follow-up questions regarding verbal communication between legislators and any Iowa Supreme Court justices. (Justice Matthew McDermott worked closely with top Iowa Republicans for years before being appointed to the high court in 2020.)

The state constitution sets no deadline for approving new Congressional maps, so the Iowa House and Senate will be able to vote on that plan without any authorization by the Supreme Court. Iowa has never pursued Congressional and legislative redistricting on separate tracks before, because state law requires legislative districts to be wholly contained as much as possible within Congressional districts.

REDISTRICTING COMMISSION FINALLY HAS A CHAIR

Near the beginning of the TRAC’s August 17 meeting, the four members selected by Iowa House and Senate leaders chose Sue Lerdal to be the fifth member and chairperson. Lerdal previously worked for the LSA, so is familiar with the redistricting process. She is now a registered lobbyist.

TRAC members should have selected a chair in February, but the first four appointed to the commission–Republicans Chris Hagenow and Dave Roederer, and Democrats Ian Russell and Deidre DeJear–could not agree on a fifth member.

DeJear stepped down from the TRAC in July as she prepared to explore a campaign for governor. Iowa Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls named Davenport attorney Jazmin Newton to replace her.

UPDATE: The Associated Press reported on the TRAC’s August 23 meeting. Commissioners agreed to schedule virtual meetings, open to Iowans in any part of the state, for September 20, 21, and 22. Commissioners will meet again on September 23 to discuss the public input and plan their report to the legislature, which would presumably be submitted on September 27.

Top image: Screenshot from online meeting of Iowa’s Temporary Redistricting Advisory Commission on August 17.

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