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June 2013 Policy Study, Number 13-4


Mal-apportionment and the Miracle of Iowa


The "Miracle" of Iowa Non-Partisan Redistricting



Many, Republicans and Democrats alike, were of the opinion, “to the victor go the spoils.” While acknowledging the necessity for any Iowa reapportionment plan to meet “population standards delineated by the United States Constitution,” they attempted to create “wiggle room” for factors in addition to population if they were allowed by the Supreme Court in other states.[74] Senators Elizabeth Shaw, Philip Hill, Richard Ramsey, Richard Drake, and David Readinger introduced Senate Joint Resolution (SJR) 10 in 1977 which would have pushed back the deadline for coming up with a plan from September 1 of the first year of each decade to January 15 of the second year as well as allowing more population variation.[75]


One can speculate that the Iowa Republicans were encouraged by the replacement of Earl Warren by William Rehnquist as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and by the evolving reapportionment standards in cases like Mahan v. Powell (1973), Gaffney v. Cummings (1973), and White v. Regester (1973) in which variance from strict equality was allowed if it “may reasonably be said to advance the rational state policy of respecting the boundaries of political subdivisions.”[76] However, HJR 10 did not pass, and after the 1978 election Reid W. Crawford, Chairman of the House State Government Committee appointed a sub-committee composed of Republicans James Anderson and Nancy Shimanek (Chairman), and Democrat Jean Lloyd-Jones (who as President of the ILWV had been a party to the suit invalidating the 1971 plan).[77]


The plan they produced specified that the Legislative Service Bureau was to provide plans for both congressional and Iowa General Assembly redistricting by April 1 of the first year after each decennial census; the Iowa General Assembly must vote on the plan — without amendment — within seven days. If defeated, the LSB must produce a second plan by May 1. Again the Iowa General Assembly has seven days to act and may only vote the plan up or down, not amend it. If defeated, the LSB must produce a third plan by June 1 and this plan can be amended. If a plan is not adopted by the Iowa General Assembly by September 1, the Iowa Supreme Court was to again draw up a plan in time for the elections in the second year after the census.[78] Both congressional and legislative districts would have to be as equal in population and as compact and contiguous as possible.


More importantly for preventing Gerrymandering, the LSB is forbidden to take into account previous election results, current voting registration figures, or the residences of any incumbent representatives.[79] In order to make the job more manageable, according to Professor Liittschwager, they would first draw the number of congressional districts to which Iowa was entitled, then fit (an equal number if possible) the state Senate seats within those districts, and finally divide each Senate district into two House districts. The task was very labor intensive, because while the computer could crunch the census numbers, there were no computerized mapping programs available, and the results had to be transferred to maps by hand.[80]


In her notes prepared for the debate on the bill which she ran on the floor of the House, Representative Shimanek characterized the plan as “Fair, Efficient, & Workable,” “Constitutionally Valid,” and “Politically Feasible.”[81] She went on to emphasize that the elected legislature, not an appointed court or administrative body, should make districting decisions. Further, while the legislative process would be a political one, Gerrymandering and “horse-trading” to protect incumbents could be discouraged under this bill because of the objective, strict standards for population equality, compactness, and contiguousness, and because the burden would be on the Iowa General Assembly to defend any deviations if an adopted plan was subject to court challenge.[82]


In reporting the outcome, the Cedar Rapids Gazette said on Sunday 8 April 1979:


The Iowa House, composed of 56 Republicans and 44 Democrats, voted 97-0 the other day for a bill assigning the initial task of drawing new legislative and congressional Districts, based on the 1980 census, to the Legislative Service Bureau. Any time the House votes unanimously for anything other than non-controversial measures, it is news. And any time the vote is 97-0 (it probably would have been 100-0 if three members hadn’t missed the roll call) for a bill containing the word “reapportionment,” it borders on earth-shaking news.[83]


In its discussion of the process, the Des Moines Register reported on 19 March 1979, that Jean Lloyd-Jones and Reid Crawford who had initially favored a bi-partisan commission approach pushed by Common Cause and supported by Governor Ray, had switched to the LSB non-partisan plan as superior. Crawford was cited as fearing that the commission system left the door open to district trade-offs to protect incumbents and the parties at the expense of the people. They especially approved of the first two plans put forward by the LSB being unamendable as a bulwark against Gerrymandering.[84]


The Senate fell in line and this approach became law in Iowa. There have been some minor amendments, for example, the number of days the LSB has to prepare a plan is pushed back by the same number of days the US Census Bureau is late in delivering the data required. But nothing has changed the main thrust of the “non-partisan miracle.”[85] In the times it has been used it has never gone to the amendable third plan. When popular Republican Congressmen Tom Tauke and Jim Leach were put into the same district by the first plan, the first plan was rejected, but the second adopted.[86] There have been as many as 20 of the 100 House members in a district with another incumbent, but that still leaves 80 who are not, and as much as they might want to vote “no” on the first plan to help these friends out, they want to vote “yes” on Plan One even more in hopes of avoiding being one of those thrown in with another incumbent in the subsequent plan — “better the Devil you know, than the Devil you don’t.”


So what can we conclude are the reasons the majority Republicans gave up the power to Gerrymander? One of us, Don Racheter, has had extensive contact with members of the Iowa General Assembly and based on his conversations with these affected Legislators, it appears to be a combination of the following four factors. First, even within a majority party, there are those members close to the leadership, and those who are “back-benchers,” who might be Gerrymandered out of a seat if they cross the leaders. Voting for a non-partisan plan minimizes this risk. Second, and much more significant, was the resentment of the Court stepping in, at the request of the Democrats and their allies, and infringing on the institutional autonomy of the General Assembly. Closely tied to this was the third reason, the belief that the Court had botched the job, and the Iowa General Assembly acting through the LSB could do a much better job. Fourth, and perhaps most important, there were a significant number of upstanding Republican members of the Iowa General Assembly who, like Representative Shimanek, just thought “it was the right thing to do.”[87] In other words, we Iowans really were blest with a political miracle!


Is it possible that these conditions can be replicated in other states like Illinois to move them from Gerrymandering to non-partisan redistricting? It seems very unlikely. We have seen both Democrats and Republicans carve up congressional and legislative districts for partisan advantage in Texas, California, and other states even while carefully meeting the court imposed “population equality” criteria through usage of ever more powerful and convenient computer programs. There no longer is a cadre of moderate “Ray Republicans” in Iowa or other states, and the moderate “Blue Dog” Democrats also seem to be a vanishing species. Congressmen and legislators are more afraid of a primary challenge from the left or the right if they are seen as insufficiently liberal or conservative respectively than worried about prevailing in the general election. Incumbency has replaced other factors in most easily explaining election outcomes in America.




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