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State Supreme Court OK’s late start for Iowa election redistricting
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State Supreme Court OK’s late start for Iowa election redistricting

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The Iowa State Capitol building Friday, July 31, 2020, in Des Moines.

With the Iowa Supreme Court’s blessing, state lawmakers will meet Oct. 5 to begin their part of creating new congressional and legislative election districts to reflect population changes shown in the latest 2020 census that arrived too late to meet constitutional deadlines.

The state constitution calls for the Iowa Legislature to approve a redistricting plan by Sept. 1 and for the plan to be enacted by Sept. 15. If the deadlines are not met, the constitution shifts redistricting responsibilities to the Iowa Supreme Court.

But on Tuesday, the court gave lawmakers more time. It issued a statement saying that “pursuant to its constitutional authority to ‘cause the state to be apportioned,’ the Supreme Court permits the parties identified in Iowa Code chapter 42 (2021) to prepare an apportionment in accord with Iowa Code chapter 42 (2021) by Dec. 1, 2021.”

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The U.S. Census Bureau said it initially planned to provide states by March 31 with the data they need to begin the process. But delays from the pandemic caused the deadline to slip to this month.

Election redistricting occurs once every 10 years after the national census has been completed. Based on the 2020 census, new boundaries will be drawn for 50 Iowa Senate and 100 Iowa House districts, as well as for four U.S. House districts based on criteria established in the U.S. and Iowa constitutions and state law. In Iowa, the new elections maps at least initially are drawn by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency. The agency says its goal is to make the districts as close to equal as possible. Any deviation greater than 1 percent must be justified by the Legislature.

If lawmakers approve the first plan, it will go to the Gov. Kim Reynolds for her signature. If the plan is rejected, the agency will draw another map that again is subject to a yes-or-no vote without any changes. If that is rejected, the agency draws a third version that then can be amended by lawmakers.

House Democrats already have committed — sight unseen — to the first plan.

“Iowans don't want politicians picking and choosing who they represent,” House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, said earlier this month. “That's why Iowa House Democrats plan to vote ‘yes’ on the first map. We can feel confident in this plan even before seeing the maps because it's not about the political makeup of the districts. It's about ensuring fair representation for Iowans. It's not about us. It's about the people we represent.”

She challenged Republicans to make the same commitment. However, none of the other legislative caucuses have made a similar commitment.

In a statement Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said lawmakers should approve the first plan “if it meets all the legal and constitutional requirements.”

House and Senate Republicans have said they will follow the law.

“As I have repeatedly stated, the goal of Senate Republicans after the census is to follow by the redistricting process outlined in Iowa Code,” Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said. He also thanked the court for “maintaining Iowa’s nationally recognized redistricting process.”

House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said House Republicans are “eager” to get to work on a redistricting process “considered one of the fairest in all 50 states.”

“We’ve worked with the nonpartisan LSA and the Supreme Court to ensure that the integrity of our highly-praised redistricting process is maintained,” he said.

However, Democrats warn that following the law would allow the Republican majorities to gerrymander by amending a third plan to give them an advantage in future elections.

“Despite our requests, and we've been making these requests for almost a year now, Republicans still have not made a declarative statement that they won’t gerrymander,” Wahls said. “We’re very concerned.”

Neither Wahls nor Konfrst had evidence, however, that Republicans plan to create their own map for partisan advantage.

“I’ve not heard anything that leads me to believe that there's anything imminent coming,” Konfrst said, adding, “I haven't heard anything the other way, either.”

Reynolds was asked during a radio interview Tuesday if she expected legislators might consider any issues beyond redistricting during the special session.

“They can,” she replied. “We’re going to be very focused on the redistricting. We’ve got a pretty tight turnaround because of the timing. It’s really compressed, that timeline. They do have the ability to do that.”

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