Iowa praised, but no states mimic mapping system

DES MOINES – Iowa’s redistricting process is often held out as the national model for how states should handle the once-a-decade process.

Yet none of its upper Midwestern neighbors, most with single-party control at the state level, have emulated it. Meanwhile, Iowa’ Legislature, U.S. House and U.S. Senate delegations stand apart as evenly balanced.

“When you get good districts as they do in Iowa, you’re giving the voter a bigger say,” said David Winston, a Republican pollster and senior adviser to U.S. House Speaker John Boehner.

Iowa’s process is a little-known fact nationally that political operatives in the lightly populated agricultural state wish were more widely understood. Even Republicans hold it in esteem, although such a move in neighboring states likely would threaten their party’s majority in Congress.

“At least when you’re on the other side, in the minority, you still have a fighting chance,” said Jeff Boeyink, former campaign manager for Republican Gov. Terry Branstad.

Iowa’s minimally political process dates to a contentious redistricting fight after the 1970 census, which ended with the state Supreme Court setting the boundaries. Ten years later, lawmakers adopted the current system, based largely on the criteria the court used, and which established a nonpartisan Legislative Services bureau to determining boundaries.

Beyond abiding by federal rules on population equality, Iowa’s system also requires whole counties stay in the same district. The bureau must also ignore home towns of incumbents, which has forced some lawmakers to relocate to seek re-election. The Legislature and governor are given three chances to agree on maps before the districts must be settled by the high court.

U.S. Rep. Tom Latham has moved twice during his 20 years in the U.S. House, to avoid running against a fellow Republican. Latham is not seeking an 11th term in November.

Iowa’s process does a better job of capturing national mood swings, said the GOP pollster Winston. “Things swing, and swings in viewpoints can be reflected in results.”

But Americans know little about their own state’s redistricting process, much less in Iowa, where the political trademark is the quadrennial presidential caucuses, said national Democratic pollster Paul Maslin.

“I think by and large the curtain hasn’t been pulled back for voters,” said Paul Maslin, who is based in Madison, Wis. “I don’t think people know there’s an Iowa style alternative out there.”

What you have now in Iowa is four U.S. House districts within roughly 13,000 voters of each other and averaging about 480,000 active voters. Democrats outnumber Republicans by no more than 30,000 voters in the two eastern Iowa districts, held by Democrats, and Republicans outnumber Democrats comparatively in the two western Iowa districts, with non-affiliated voters outnumbering partisans in all but one district.

Instead of vast pendulum sweeps that benefit one party, challengers’ main obstacle to re-election is the momentum an incumbent has instead of also a district heavy with the opposing party as well.

Instead, candidates who emerge from lop-sided districts are often further from the center, and less likely to seek common ground, said outgoing Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin.

“Your legislator is going to be more focused on just the view of the primary voters,” Harkin said. “And so you reduce any desire for compromise. No one wants to compromise.”

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