Iowa Senate Republicans vote on party line to reject first set of redistricting maps

Iowa Legislative Services Agency proposed congressional district map, published Sept. 16, 2021.

Republicans in the Iowa Senate rejected the first set of redistricting maps drawn up by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency (LSA) on Tuesday. The vote in the Senate broke down along party lines, with all 32 Republicans opposing the maps that reset the boundaries of the districts in the Iowa House and Senate, as well as the state’s four Congressional districts.

“This map is fair, it’s independent,” Sen. Pam Joachim, a Democrat from Dubuque, said on Tuesday, encouraging her fellow senators to approve the LSA proposal. “It does not give an advantage to one party over the other.”

What limited floor discussion there was in the Senate focused on the maps for the Iowa House and Senate, not the Congressional map, although that map would have potentially changed the makeup of Iowa’s U.S. House delegation. As things stand now, there is one Democrat and three Republicans. The proposed map would have created an almost certainly Democratic district (that includes both Johnson and Linn counties), a district that would likely vote for a Democrat, a district that would likely vote Republican and one that definitely would.

In her remarks, Joachim pointed out the maps not only meet the standards set out in Iowa’s nonpartisan redistricting law, they also received the support from almost all the members of the public who commented on them when the Temporary Redistricting Advisory Committee.

“Today, plain and simply, is your chance to do the right thing,” she urged her colleagues.

“Today we can either restore and strengthen our democracy, or we can continue to erode it.”

Sen. Tony Bisignano, a Democrat representing Polk County, drew on his experience serving in the Iowa House when redistricting occurred following the 1990 census, and the roles of the two parties were reversed.

“I had the benefit of being involved in one other redistricting in 1991,” Bisignano said. “The Democrats were in control of the House and the Senate, and the first plan we took because of the standards Iowans have set in how they want their politics to proceed.”

Iowa House District map in LSA first redistricting proposal.

Like Joachin, Bisignano told senators to vote for the map because it was fair and nonpartisan — although he said it was obvious that Republicans were going to vote in lockstep against it — but he also appealed to their sense of self-interest, telling them a second map may be worse for them.

“It’s easy to put off to tomorrow what we don’t want to do here today, that’s all we’re going to do. We’re going to make up some scenario of why this plan is not a good plan,” he said. “We’re going to tell them that it’s not tight enough or geographically it’s too broad and they’re going to send you back another plan that could look just like this plan in reverse.“

Geography was one of the reasons Republican Sen. Roby Smith of Scott County gave for rejecting the LSA proposal when he spoke on the floor. Smith was the only Republican to argue against the maps on the Senate floor.

The LSA proposal “may meet statutory requirements, however, there are opportunities for these maps to be improved on compactness and population deviation,” he said.

Iowa law requires “the mean deviation percentage variance [in population] for a proposed state senatorial or state representative redistricting plan shall not exceed 1 percent.” None do in the LSA plan, but according to Smith, 18 of the 100 House districts come close enough to violating that standard that the LSA maps should be rejected.

Smith also said the maps violate the legal provision against “irregular shapes.” Iowa Code does list squares, rectangles and hexagons as the type of shapes that are acceptable. The Scott County Republican said he saw among the 150 districts on the maps — 100 for the House, 50 for the Senate — a district in the shape of a triangle, another in the shape of a pyramid, a third in the shape of figure-eight and one he described as salamander-like. He did not specify which map those shapes were on.

He also complained about the size of one of the House districts and one of the Senate districts. Both cover approximately the same territory in western Iowa and needed to be large to cover enough people, since the rural population of the state has continued to decline. Smith did not comment on the number of people those districts would have covered, just the acreage they would have occupied.

Smith did not address any specific comments on the Congressional map, but all three maps must be approved together or rejected together, without any amendments.

“Voting down the first plan does not violate the quote-unquote gold standard,” Smith told his colleagues, using the term Iowa politicians have used for decades to refer to the redistricting process.

Republicans then proceeded to vote down the first plan.

The LSA now has 35 days to present a new set of maps that are supposed address the Republican Senate majority concerns on compactness and population deviation, while following the provision of Iowa law on redistricting. Because the Senate already rejected it, the first LSA plan will not be considered by the Iowa House.

Lawmakers will be able to vote on the second set of maps the LSA proposes seven days after the agency delivers it. Again, all three maps can be approved or rejected in the second phase, but not amended. If the second set of maps is also rejected, the LSA has another 35 days to create a third set of maps, which can be amended by majority votes.

Iowa Senate District Map in LSA first redistricting proposal.

Iowa has never had redistricting maps amended by the Legislature since it adopted its nonpartisan redistricting process in the 1970s. In 1981, the third set of maps was approved. In 1991 and 2011, the first set of maps was approved. The second set was approved in 2001.

Unlike those years, the Iowa Legislature is working with a different deadline. Because census data for redistricting was delayed, lawmakers are already past the deadline for approving new maps set by state law. After that deadline, authority for approving maps is supposed to be in the hands of the Iowa Supreme Court. But because of the late delivery of census data, Chief Justice Susan Christensen is giving lawmakers until Dec. 1 to approve redistricting maps.

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