Iowa Senate Republicans reject first proposed redistricting maps; wait goes on for political boundaries
Iowa Republicans have rejected a set of proposed political boundaries, prolonging an already delayed process and raising the tenor on what could become a divisive partisan fight over the state's redistricting efforts.
The Iowa Senate voted Tuesday on a party-line vote, 32-18, to scrap the proposed maps, which would have established new congressional and legislative districts for the next decade.
The rebuffed proposal would have drawn dozens of incumbent legislators into districts together. And it would have made the 1st Congressional District so heavily Democratic that it could have imperiled Republican U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson, a rising congressional star.
Though the political implications of the vote were clear, Senate Republicans kept their public comments on the technical requirements outlined in Iowa law.
"There are clear indications that plan one can be improved by a second iteration addressing compactness and population deviation," said the bill's floor manager, Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport.
Republicans hold majorities in the Iowa House and Senate, giving them the power to accept or reject the maps. The defeat came over the protest of Democrats, who argued the first maps were fair and removed partisan influence from the process. Rejecting them, they said, would open the door to partisan gerrymandering by the Republican majorities.
"The maps before us satisfy the Iowa law and the Iowa Constitution," said Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque. "To those Republicans in this room who may have some concerns: This map is fair. It’s independent. It does not give an advantage of one party over the other. It does not. Nor should it."
The vote came during a rare special session that also drew a raucous crowd of Iowans protesting vaccine mandates announced by the federal government. They left disappointed as the Legislature adjourned without addressing the issue.
For all the buildup to the special session during months of delays, it ended within hours. With the Senate's rejection of the maps, House lawmakers, who had traveled to Des Moines from around the state, returned home without voting on the proposal.
"As I have stated previously, I believe these maps to be fair maps for Iowa," House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said in a statement. "However, I don't believe the Senate’s concerns with compactness and population deviation are unwarranted."
The Senate's rejection of the maps Tuesday sets in motion the drafting of a second set of maps by a nonpartisan agency, which must submit them within 35 days. That ensures lawmakers will return to the Capitol for another special session before the year is over.
'Plan one can be improved': Iowa Senate votes down redistricting maps in special session, updates
Why Senate Republicans say they want to go to round two
Politicians don't draw the political boundaries in Iowa, but they can issue recommendations to the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency, which does. During floor debate, Republicans listed specific problems they had with the maps, which the agency can now take under advisement.
The agency has a strict set of guidelines it must adhere to. Staffers cannot consider factors such as the number of registered voters, election results or the addresses of incumbent politicians. To further prevent gerrymandering, the Iowa Constitution says districts must be both “compact” and “contiguous,” and a single county cannot be divided between two congressional districts.
Iowa Code specifies that the compactness of a district is greatest when the length and width of the district are equal, giving it a square shape with the shortest possible perimeter. Iowa law also says that congressional and legislative districts must coincide as much as possible with the boundaries of cities and other political subdivisions.
During floor debate, Smith noted that Iowa Code says reasonably compact districts "are those which are square, rectangular or hexagonal in shape and not irregularly shaped." The code goes on to say that it is "to the extent permitted by natural or political boundaries."
“This map includes a triangle, a pyramid, a figure eight, and a district that is so irregular it looks like the 1800s salamander known for gerrymandering,” he said.
Following Tuesday’s vote, Senate Republican staff said the “salamander” district was Senate District 17, which would have included portions of Polk and Dallas counties and wrapped around the north and east sides of several smaller districts in the Des Moines metro area.
The “figure eight” referred to Senate District 49, which would have included all of rural Linn and Johnson counties, while fully encircling three smaller Senate districts in the Cedar Rapids metro. It would also have partially surrounded two smaller Senate districts in the Iowa City metro area.
Smith also took issue with the size of House District 18, which he said would have a perimeter of 300 miles — larger than all but six of the proposed Senate districts.
“These deviations, along with compactness, should improve to better meet the standards as required under the state constitution and statute,” Smith said.
Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said large districts and some unusual shapes can occur when nonpartisan staff try to balance all the factors they need to take into account.
“You can have some districts that look a little, maybe, unusual, but that's a result of keeping compactness for the towns and counties around larger urban areas," Wahls said. "And we've always had maps that have had that phenomenon."
Wahls and other Democrats hinted that the maps were rejected for political reasons rather than those stated during debate.
"Senate Republicans today chose politics over the common good one more time," said House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights.
More than 60 current state lawmakers would have been drawn into districts with another incumbent if the proposed maps had been adopted.
Meanwhile, while the competitive 1st Congressional District would have become firmly Democratic, the 2nd District would have become slightly more favorable to Republicans. The 3rd District would have retained an even partisan split, and the 4th District would have grown more Republican.
What happens if the second map set is rejected?
The Senate passed a resolution Tuesday outlining its concerns, which will be delivered to the nonpartisan agency. Staff members now have up to 35 days to draw a second set of maps, which they will then present to lawmakers for approval or rejection.
If the second set of maps is rejected, the agency will then draft a third set. Unlike the first two maps, lawmakers are allowed to offer amendments to the third proposal. Democrats have warned against such an outcome, saying it opens the door to partisan gerrymandering.
“We are very concerned that today's rejection of the first plan is a signal that Republicans intend to move towards a third map where amendments would be possible, and Iowa’s decades-long tradition of nonpartisan redistricting could be in grave danger," Wahls said.
Republicans have rejected allegations that they plan to gerrymander Iowa’s maps, noting that Iowa Code specifically outlines a process they intend to follow.
"Going to a second map is not unprecedented, and we are still following Iowa’s gold standard redistricting process," Grassley said in a statement. "We have worked to maintain the integrity of redistricting process in Iowa and will continue to do so."
Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said even if Iowa lawmakers do end up considering a third map "you still can't throw away the Iowa law as far as the requirements of what a district should look like."
"We have a very specific process in Iowa Code including how those districts are drawn and what they look like," Whitver said. "So if anyone thinks you can just come in and draw whatever you want, that’s not legal in Iowa."
The Legislature approved the first set of maps in 1991 and 2011, and it approved the second set of maps in 2001. Lawmakers have gone to a third set only once, in 1981, and lawmakers did not offer any amendments or changes to that plan.
Iowa Legislature's redistricting deadline is Dec. 1
The Legislature is under a deadline that could make it difficult to get to a third map even if Republicans wanted to. The Iowa Supreme Court has said lawmakers have until Dec. 1 to complete their work.
Iowa’s redistricting process has been drawn out for months due to delays in the 2020 census caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The once-a-decade process, which would normally be completed in the spring, was pushed to the fall due to the U.S. Census Bureau’s delay in providing states new population counts.
The delay caused the state to miss Iowa’s constitutional deadline to complete the process of drawing new legislative districts. Iowa's Constitution says that if the Legislature cannot enact a law outlining new districts by Sept. 15, the Supreme Court will step in and "cause the state to be apportioned" into new districts. Chief Justice Susan Christensen issued an order last month extending lawmakers’ deadline to Dec. 1.
In the two years the process has moved beyond the first map, 1981 and 2011, it has taken the agency from 30 to 34 days to deliver each new set of maps. They are required to do it within 35 days.
After the first map was rejected in 1981, it took the agency 34 days to deliver a second plan. That plan was also rejected, and it took nonpartisan staff another 30 days to draft a third plan.
In 2001, it took the agency 30 days to draft a second plan after the first was rejected. Lawmakers accepted the second plan.
Whitver said agency staff haven't told him when they'll deliver a second plan, but he noted that the first plan this year came 30 days after the census data was released.
"They have up to 35 days," he said. "I would hope they would do it faster because of the time constraint, but I don’t know that."
Brianne Pfannenstiel is the chief politics reporter for the Register. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-284-8244. Follow her on Twitter at @brianneDMR.
Stephen Gruber-Miller covers the Iowa Statehouse and politics for the Register. He can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at 515-284-8169. Follow him on Twitter at @sgrubermiller.