Court gives Iowa politicians until December 1 to adopt new maps

Iowa Supreme Court justices finally let the public in on the secret.

Under Iowa’s constitution, authority to enact legislative maps (but not Congressional maps) passes to the high court after September 15. But a September 14 order signed by Chief Justice Susan Christensen gives the legislature and governor until December 1 “to prepare an apportionment in accord with Iowa Code chapter 42,” which outlines the redistricting process Iowa has used since 1981.

High-ranking Republicans have indicated for months that they expected the Iowa House and Senate to be able to vote on new maps after the constitutional deadline, but the judicial branch’s spokesperson would not confirm whether justices or their representatives gave private assurances to key lawmakers. Bleeding Heartland’s request for written correspondence between the chief justice and legislative leaders produced no responsive records.

The court could have clarified months ago that it planned to proceed in this manner. But better late than never.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT

The nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency will release its first set of legislative and Congressional maps on September 16. The maps will be posted here, and will be downloadable as pdf files as well as “in an ESRI shapefile format, a Census block equivalency file, and as a Geographic Information System (GIS) web service.”

Iowans can provide feedback on the maps online or during three virtual public hearings, organized by the Temporary Redistricting Advisory Commission:

  • Monday, September 20: 7:00 – 9:30 p.m
  • Tuesday, September 21: Noon – 3:00 p.m.
  • Wednesday, September 22: 6:00 – 8:30 p.m.

The advisory commission plans to meet on September 23 and will prepare a report for the legislature, probably to be submitted early the following week. The Iowa House and Senate can’t vote on proposed maps until at least three days after receiving the commission’s report.

Governor Kim Reynolds signed a proclamation on September 14 scheduling a special legislative session to consider redistricting on October 5. Lawmakers cannot amend the proposal; they can only vote yes or no.

If either chamber rejects the first set of Congressional and legislative maps, or the Iowa House and Senate approve the maps but Reynolds vetoes the plan, the LSA has up to 35 days to produce a second plan that conforms to the population equality and compactness standards outlined in Iowa Code. That plan also can’t be amended before lawmakers vote.

If the second set of maps are not enacted, the LSA has up to 35 days to produce a third plan. This time the legislature can amend the proposal. For years, many Iowa Democrats have worried the GOP trifecta would use this process to enact a gerrymandered map. This is the first time since 1981 that one party has had full control of state government during a redistricting cycle. That year, the legislature approved and Governor Bob Ray signed the third LSA map without amendment. Officials enacted the first nonpartisan plan in 1991, the second plan in 2001, and the first plan in 2011.

DO REPUBLICANS HAVE TIME TO GERRYMANDER?

House Speaker Pat Grassley and Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver have declined to rule out partisan changes to a third Iowa map. But they may struggle to accomplish a gerrymander within the time frame the Iowa Supreme Court has given them.

Republicans enjoy comfortable majorities in both chambers now, so if the first LSA proposal doesn’t include any deal-breakers (like putting Linn and Johnson counties in the same Congressional district, or combining Polk and Story counties to create a safe Democratic third district), they may be content to pass the first plan and go home.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume GOP leaders want something more than a nonpartisan map can give them. If they vote down the first plan on October 5, the LSA will have until November 9 to come up with a second set of maps. If lawmakers reject that plan, the LSA’s 35-day window for proposing a third plan could extend well beyond the December 1 deadline.

However, the LSA likely won’t need a full 35 days to develop a second or third set of maps. Their team has probably been working on several scenarios since receiving detailed population data from the U.S. Census Bureau last month. If the LSA proposes a second plan before the end of October and a third plan a few weeks later, Republicans would have plenty of time to amend the bill to a gerrymander and get it to Reynolds’ desk before December 1.

The governor has repeatedly praised Iowa’s redistricting process, but she has never promised to sign only a nonpartisan map without amendments.

Incidentally, I sought to clarify whether the Supreme Court’s order means new maps must be signed into law by December 1, or only that the Iowa House and Senate must vote on the plan by that date. The reply from judicial branch communications director Steve Davis gave me a sense of deja vu: “At this time, the supreme court does not anticipate answering additional questions or making further statements on the subject of redistricting.”

Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls said in a September 14 statement, “As we have said since Day 1, Iowans deserve a fair redistricting process, without interference from politicians, and without partisan amendments. The Legislature should approve Plan 1 during the October 5 special session if it meets all the legal and constitutional requirements.”

Bleeding Heartland will publish Evan Burger‘s take on the first LSA proposal sometime on September 16, so watch this space.

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