Fair representation should be the first tenet of any redistricting effort.
I believed that nearly 50 years ago when I played a key role in persuading the Iowa League of Women Voters to join the ACLU, Iowa Federation of Labor and Iowa Democratic Party in a challenge of Iowa’s reapportionment plan following the 1970 census. I believe it just as strongly today as I read daily news reports of severely gerrymandered districts and efforts by citizens to address issues within their own states.
At a time when residents in Colorado, Michigan, North Carolina and other states across the country are considering ways to address redistricting challenges and inequities, Iowa stands as a model for its nonpartisan method of drawing representative congressional and legislative boundaries.
Our fight for fair districts occurred nearly a half century ago, and the success we have seen since serves as an inspiration for those facing the same battle today.
The Iowa League of Women Voters began studying reapportionment in 1955. In the 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court issued several rulings that had a profound impact on the reapportionment process nationwide.
In 1968, the Iowa Constitution was amended to fulfill the court’s mandate to draw district lines based on population. Our dedication to the issue found the League paying close attention when Iowa’s new map was released in 1971. By all accounts, it appeared to be a good map with only a slight deviation in population between districts. However, League members learned that when the map was drawn, greater priority was placed on protecting incumbents than protecting the rights of Iowans to have fair and representative districts.
After a great deal of internal debate, The Iowa League of Women Voters agreed to join a lawsuit challenging the state’s redistricting proposal. Not only that, we attempted to draw a fair boundary map using the same census data and same requirements outlined by the Iowa Legislature. We rented the use of a computer at a local community college to run models and managed to create a district map with a lower population deviation than that created by the Legislature.
The Iowa Supreme Court sided with the League and other complainants, noting that our plan proved that it was possible to create a plan with districts more equally apportioned by population when not considering incumbent residency in redistricting. As a result, the court ordered the state to create a new redistricting plan.
When the process began again, following the 1980 census, Iowa had enacted new legislation that established a statutory process for drawing districts. By this time, I had been elected to the Legislature and was fortunate enough to help create these new guidelines. The process approved by the Legislature in 1980 has since been cited as one of the best in the nation.
What makes it such a success? For one, the process is led by the state’s nonpartisan legislative services agency and has a strict timeline for when it must be approved. This is critical to providing voters with the time they need to research candidates and educate themselves ahead of an election.
Iowa law requires that individual counties cannot be split into multiple legislative or congressional districts. Iowa’s process also requires that districts be nested. There are two state house districts within each state Senate district and state Senate districts follow the same boundary lines as congressional districts – no state districts are divided into multiple congressional districts.
What’s more, Iowa law specifically highlights what factors should not be taken into consideration, including favoritism for a political party, incumbent legislator or member of Congress. Data about the addresses of incumbents, voter registration by parties, previous election results and most demographic data are not to be considered when establishing districts.
In many ways, our ability to protect our rights in the United States is incumbent on our ability to vote, and more importantly cast a vote that has equal weight as those of our neighbors and fellow Americans across the U.S. Perhaps the Court said it best in Wesberry v. Sanders: “Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined.”
For many years, Iowa has had a reputation for good government – legislative processes and a judicial system that are fair, efficient and free of corruption. That has not come easy. It took careful deliberation and compromise. It took lawmakers agreeing to hand over the boundary- drawing power to a nonpartisan group.
All of that was necessary to create a process fundamental to Iowans’ rights to fair representation. Of course, this right isn’t exclusive to Iowans, and as I look at the challenges facing other states, I am hopeful they can learn from the path Iowa took and implement fair, non-partisan representative districts of their own.
Jean Lloyd-Jones was president of the Iowa League of Women Voters in 1972 when the organization challenged Iowa’s redistricting map. She went on to serve in the Iowa Legislature for 16 years. Lloyd-Jones will be participating in a panel discussion about Iowa’s redistricting model at the National Press Club hosted by The Harkin Institute for Public Policy & Citizen Engagement and the Cook Political Report on Tuesday, Sept. 18. For more information visit bit.ly/DrawnOut.