Iowa Democrats tout state’s redistricting model amid Supreme Court gerrymandering case

As the Supreme Court considers its role in determining when partisan gerrymandering violates the Constitution, Iowa’s congressional Democrats hold up Iowa’s process as a model that eliminates partisanship.


Marissa Payne/The Daily Iowan

Protesters stand in front of the steps of the Supreme Court building to call for an end to gerrymandering on Tuesday, March 26, 2019. The Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday morning in a case regarding partisan gerrymandering in North Carolina and Maryland.

Marissa Payne, Managing Editor

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court may not carve out a place for federal courts to resolve the partisan drawing of election districts, but Iowa’s congressional Democrats have taken action to preserve Iowa’s model to keep partisanship out of the redistricting process.

The nation’s highest court on Tuesday heard oral challenges to congressional redistricting plans that have provided an advantage to Maryland Democrats and North Carolina Republicans in the Rucho v. Common Cause case.

Justices weighed whether state governments are best positioned to deal with partisan gerrymandering issues that arise or whether the Supreme Court could develop a test to lay out standards that would determine when partisan gerrymandering becomes unconstitutional.

President Trump’s appointees to the court — Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch — expressed concerns about the federal courts treading on the issue of excessive partisanship in redistricting but indicated an openness to contemplating a constitutional solution to addressing the problem in the federal system.

“What about, to pick up on something Justice Gorsuch said earlier, that there is a fair amount of activity going on in the states on redistricting and attention in Congress and in state supreme courts?” Kavanaugh inquired, according to Supreme Court transcripts. “In other words … have we really reached the moment, even though it would be a big lift for this court to get involved, where the other actors can’t do it?”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of April 2018, the redistricting responsibility falls with state legislatures for legislative redistricting in 37 states and for congressional redistricting in 43 states.

Michigan, Ohio, and Utah are a few states in which voters recently took efforts to reform partisan gerrymandering. But Iowa has been a model since 1980 for its nonpartisan way of drawing election districts.

Staffers from Iowa’s nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency draw both legislative and congressional district lines and submit district maps to the state Legislature each year after a census. The Legislature may either adopt or reject the plan, but amendments are not allowed. If the Legislature opts not to pass the map twice, the Iowa Supreme Court draws the final map.

RELATED: Iowa redistricting model efficiently reduces bias

Democrats representing Iowa in Congress recently amended the For The People Act, a House bill to expand voting rights and limit partisan gerrymandering, to keep Iowa’s redistricting model intact.

The bill, which the House passed March 8, includes language requiring states draw congressional districts by establishing independent commissions to prevent partisan gerrymandering. With the amendment, Iowa maintains its current redistricting process.

Iowa Democratic 1st District Rep. Abby Finkenauer spearheaded the amendment with support from Iowa fellow Democrats Dave Loebsack of the 2nd District and Cindy Axne of the 3rd District.

“I will always step up for Iowa and our traditions,” Finkenauer said in a statement. “Republicans and Democrats have disagreed on a lot, but we have always come together on our system for drawing fair districts. In Iowa, we make sure our leaders are accountable to the people who elected them — and that’s something always worth fighting for.”

Sarah Watson/The Daily Iowan
Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, speaks with The Daily Iowan in the Longworth House Office Building in Washington on March 26.

Loebsack told The Daily Iowan on March 26 that he hopes to see other states become more like Iowa with their redistricting processes. He said there’s no question that gerrymandering has happened all around the country in many states, so he supports reform for redistricting on the national level.

Should Iowans worry about excessive partisanship in redistricting like the states involved in the battle in the federal-court system? Loebsack thinks Iowans do not “have to worry very much about that.”

“… I think that we have a tradition, and I think that both parties understand how important it is we do this in a nonpartisan way,” he said.